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Upton-On-Line - Diaspora Edition 26th October

Upton-On-Line - Diaspora Edition

26th October 2002

In this issue

We cover issues profane and profound: the divertissements that Paris’s Mayor Bertrand Delanoe has been organising for his ratepayers and the deep foreign policy confessions of one of Australia’s leading strategic thinkers, Hugh White. Also, the response of the NZ Government to its own Select Committee’s recommendations on closer political and intellectual engagement with Australia.

The things rich cities can afford

Readers of the NZ Herald were recently treated to a eulogistic article by Catherine Field on Paris’ Mayor Bertrand Delanoe and the rash of successes – most notably the Paris Plage initiative - he has notched up so far as the capital’s first socialist mayor for yonks. There’s no denying his near-perfect public relations since arriving in office – although it probably helped, taking over from an embattled Jean Tiberi whose refusal to stand down in the face of corruption charges caused a complete melt-down on the centre-right.

But one has to question whether initiatives like “Paris Plage” (the creation of temporary beaches on closed off riverside roadways) or the so-far smooth attempts to demotorise the city through more bus lanes and fewer through roads, owe their glamour and daring to M Delanoe alone. In the first place, M Delanoe holds power in coalition with the Greens whose much less telegenic team led by Denis Baupin are in fact the authors of most of the transport initiatives. In the second place, the city’s rulers in the Hôtel de Ville (and such is the grandeur of the place that the Mayor of Paris is more like the prince of a renaissance city state than a boring old council chairman) are able to trade on simply fabulous levels of public investment over decades and even centuries.

If the case for reclaiming public space from motorists is a popular one (and it certainly is with upton-on-line whose car is only used during school holidays to escape the city), the fact remains that Paris has unusual amounts of public space as a result of some pretty draconian actions not by city administrators but past rulers of the country. This is a capital city that takes its quasi-imperial status very seriously.

The main axes didn’t get there through cosy consultative ratepayer meetings. The laying out of the great boulevards literally bowled many a tenement out of the way. They were in large part laid out in Napoléon III’s time, partially as a means of aggrandising the city and partially as a way of opening up the streets to enable the quick deployment of troops to quell radicals who had, since the revolution onwards, a tendency to throw up barricades at the first sign of a government crisis. (They still do, although it’s trucks in motorway choke points these days).

Being the capital has meant a huge amount of money being spent on flagship projects and refurbishments. Each President seems to regard leaving the legacy of a grand, publicly funded project as his duty. Throwing up the odd opera house, triumphal arch or art gallery is taken for granted. And there is also the fabulously maintained and interconnected public transport infrastructure – all involving levels of public expenditure that are pretty mind-blowing. You can close off acres of road space – temporarily or even permanently if you have the supporting infrastructure to pick up the pressure. Mr Delanoe is the mayor of a city in which 56% of households do not own a car. And there must be many more (like upton-on-line’s) that own cars but do not ever use them in town.

None of this is to denigrate M Delanoe’s modus regendi. But it helps to be rich and it helps to govern a capital city. It also helps to be one of the most visited cities in the world (27 million tourists last year) with all the wealth that generates. The reality, immediately outside the orbital motorway or péripherique, is that public transport withers, roads groan and suburbs sprawl just like they do, indistinguishably, in London, Los Angeles and Auckland.


“Paris Plage”– a temporary skein of trucked-in sand, potted palm trees, instant grass and deck chairs – only worked because it just happened to be looking onto some pretty attractive architecture on the Ile de la Cité and backed by acres of delectable cafes, boutiques and galleries. Try the same trick on a featureless stretch of urban waterway in other towns and the results would be much more muted. In short, it was tinsel on an ancient and lovingly tended Christmas tree – a €1.5 million decoration that was as novel as it was audacious. We all loved it as did the Japanese tourists who clicked away for posterity throughout.

No-one will argue hard with the idea of imaginative uses of public space that are too easily mortgaged unthinkingly to cars, trucks, noise and pollution. But is this really the path to sustainability? Upton-on-line’s puritanical side questions whether the money mightn’t have been spent better on looking long and hard at the way water is used in prodigious quantities to sluice away the litter and dog excrement (not to mention car and bus residues) that build continually in the streets. Open hydrants send rivers of water down roadside gutters for hours on end every morning as the city, in imitation of mediaeval waste disposal systems, treats its roading network as one huge sluice. Making the place clean and romantic for the 27 million visitors (not to mention the residents) comes at a price.

Time alone will tell whether the greening of the Hôtel de Ville with its fabulous chandeliered state rooms where Parisian mayors greet heads of state will translate into less entertainment-friendly moves. The next extravaganza after the riverside ‘beaches’ was the ‘Nuit Blanche’ (literally, sleepless night) in which a series of monuments and buildings – some well known, some utilitarian – were made the focus of nocturnal spectacles and revels far into an autumn Saturday night. The closest to upton-on-line was a large public swimming pool bathed in crimson red light in which revellers were invited to sport. It had all the same hallmarks of the beach episode involving the imaginative, witty and novel use of public space.

But it wasn’t quite such a success. Many key sites couldn’t cope with the crowds. And in an ugly turn, the Mayor (an unabashed homosexual) was stabbed and seriously wounded by a nasty psychopath. The liberal, relaxed, care-free tone of the event was seriously scarred. And brought more than a few people face to face with the fact that underneath the almost make-believe romanticism of Paris lies a big, complex urban mass with all the problems and tensions that are the day-to-day stuff of urban living anywhere in Europe. And as the economy stalls, even some of the make believe may fade. The Mayor may yet have sleepless nights of a different kind ahead of him.

Sense from across the Tasman

Foreign policy debate in New Zealand is not exactly a rich and varied tapestry. It’s more like a threadbare prayer mat on which the political left and right chant offerings to the respective deities of the United Nations and the United States. But there is one little deconsecrated zone in which policy refugees and other agnostics are allowed to gather - the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs. And from time to time the Institute persuades foreigners (i.e. people whose policy views have not been shaped in the hothouse of virtue that serves as New Zealand’s policy incubator) to offer some cool insights to fevered minds.

One such commentator is Hugh White, Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. White was for many years an insider in the Canberra defence community. He has now stepped out into the academic community and is able to provide publicly the sort of lucid analysis previously reserved for the private consumption of Australian politicians. The lecture he gave on October 8th at Victoria University entitled New Zealand & Australia: Foreign Policy and Armed Conflict, shows just how lucky they were.

Being honest about the differences

White’s lecture provided an opportunity for him to expand on a speech given at last year’s Otago foreign policy school in which he set out the view that Australia and New Zealand have deep-seated differences in their strategic perceptions that, following the collapse of ANZUS, could not be papered over. In developing this line, White likened New Zealand’s different appreciation of where it stands in the world to the situation Europeans find themselves in vis à vis the United States. In doing so, he rejected the recently fashionable Robert Kagan view that trans-Atlantic differences are rooted in the realities of power and weakness. Rather, he locates them in “the physical and political geography of Europe’s strategic situation”. In short, after two world wars and a cold war, Europeans have worked out a modus vivendi that makes armed conflict in Europe very low (the Balkans notwithstanding). Furthermore, he notes, outside of Europe the Europeans have effectively no vital interests that they have to defend on their own. (The scale of US forces and coincidence of US and EU interests sees to that). The result is that European countries are in a long-term decline as military powers as armed forces become less relevant to their immediate environment. Here is White’s conclusion on Europe:

My own view is that Europe is going to look like the Japan of this century. That is the way Japan has looked for the last half a century [and the way] Europe will look for the next half century. Very big, very economically powerful … quite politically cohesive but strategically hardly registering on the global scale at all. And I don’t think that is a bad outcome. It is certainly not a bad outcome for the United States. It’s going to be a bit like Japan was; a big more or less neutral, but friendly, neutral in the military sense, but strategically friendly otherwise. Which is quite a handy outcome from the United States point of view. But it is worth making the point that the United States lives in a very different world. It has a global view and a global role that Europe lacks. It has a different geography. America inhabits the globe, Europe inhabits really just Europe and that globe includes two regions in particular, the Middle East and Asia in which the optimistic judgments I gave about the role of armed force in international affairs in Europe simply do not apply. In both of those regions, different though they are, the prospect of armed conflict between nation states remains a very real prospect and a very significant element in the way countries relate to one another.

The parallel White draws for trans-Tasman relations is an interesting one. Just as Europeans tend to react to US power along the lines Kagan implies, he senses in much New Zealand commentary, a tendency to judge Australia’s preoccupation with national security as being the product of its ‘middle power’ status. It’s a reflex he rejects. Differences have more to do with geography than size.

He then devoted a very considerable amount of his lecture to the proposition that September 11th hasn’t changed the way the world works nearly as much as some would maintain and that, contrary to the headlines, the Americans and the Europeans aren’t nearly so far apart as some believe. In short, his thesis is that there remain, even for America, very real limits to what can be achieved through military force and that is why, notwithstanding the rhetoric, the US has not abandoned its attempts to find common ground with the Europeans in the UN. This, he says in passing

reaffirms the power of sovereignty; that is, even quite weak states like Iraq are incredibly hard to invade and subdue [even] in an era in which we spend a great deal of time talking about the eclipse of sovereignty and the nation state as a sort of a vital element in the way the world works. It is I think salutary to remind ourselves that a sovereign state continues to have enormous power over its own territory. It is very hard to dislodge.

Without stretching the parallel between the US and Europe too far, White suggests that the different ways New Zealand and Australia view the world are rooted in geography, not just physical geography (although that’s important) but in political geography. Here is how White characterises the difference:

I do think New Zealand lives in a different … physical, political, geographical or strategic geographical environment from Australia because you do have Australia next door. Australia will be secure, that is something Australians are extremely committed to and while that is so, New Zealand is largely immune from attack. It’s true what New Zealanders say, what your government has said or successive governments have said in different New Zealand policy papers. The prospect of New Zealand having to undertake, having to meet a significant military attack on its own territory is virtually zero and war with a neighboring state … is more or less unthinkable. And of course that is very different from Australia’s situation. It is very different from the way Australia feels. Whilst we don ’t in any way regard armed conflict with any of our neighbours as likely, we don’t regard it as unthinkable. It is something that we reflect on as part of our strategic environment. Whilst that remains true for New Zealand, I think as in the case of Europe it would so to speak defy political gravity for New Zealand to spend large sums on defence to defend New Zealand against direct attack which is not going to happen, or to deal with other contingencies which you know perfectly well Australia will deal with in its own interests. So I think that difference in physical geography and the difference in political geography generated by the fact of Australia’s presence does if you like generate legitimate factors in the way New Zealand thinks about its own security. And here is my deep dark secret. Don’t tell them back home. If I were a New Zealander I would support your Government’s defence policy for New Zealand…

With that sweetener, White then proceeded to the grown-up part of his analysis. In his view, the corollary of saying he’d share New Zealand’s perception of the world it lives in if he were a kiwi, is to maintain that it makes equal sense for New Zealanders to agree with Australia’s posture. In fact, he says, New Zealand’s level of expenditure and concentration almost solely on highly deployable light land forces only makes sense in the context of Australia’s defence posture.

White didn’t explain that statement in bald terms. But the inference is that the things which worry a country with Australia’s physical and political geography are regional issues that New Zealand can’t escape from even if it doesn’t have the palpable sense of risk Australia has. White’s message to New Zealanders is to stop trying to attribute big country power motives to Australia (in much the way at a global level many countries do to the United States) and concentrate, rather, on understanding the regional issues that we share in common. White summarises them as follows:

My own view is that on almost all key issues we don’t differ and could work a lot more closely together than we do. Let me just mention three and I think they are three very important issues. The first is the way in which the power balance in the wider Asia/Pacific evolves. I mentioned before that whatever you might say about what’s happening in Europe, in Asia armed force still counts and nowhere is that more true in the balance of power between the major powers in Asia and in particularly … the US/China relationship. My own view is that the prospect … of armed conflict between the US and China, remains the most serious threat to [the] shared hopes[of those of us] … living in a wider Asian Pacific region which is peaceful, cooperative, prosperous and all those sorts of good things.

I don’t think the risk is very high but it is real and it arises both from long-term differences in perspectives and objectives between the US and China and the short-term powder keg of the Taiwan problem. There is a very high Australian strategic interest to try and prevent that happening because the choice between the US and China is one that Australia very very badly needs to avoid making and I would think, I would guess that it would be easy to get support in New Zealand for the same proposition. A conflict between the US and China is just not something we are interested in. It’s a very complicated thing to pursue but there are only two places we can do much with it. You’ve got to work with attitudes in Washington. You have got to work with attitudes in Beijing. Both of them they are quite hard towns to operate in. I don’t think we need to do it together alone. Japan for example is very interested in this agenda as well. But I do think it is something that we need to take seriously and work on together.

The second issue is Indonesia. I think Australia and New Zealand share a very deep interest in the success of democracy in Indonesia. Not just on a humanitarian level, though I think that is important for the well being of the people of Indonesia. But also on a strategic level because frankly an Indonesia in which democracy has failed and which in particular has suffered a reversion to a more authoritarian form of government will be a very difficult neighbour for all of us - not just for Australia but for New Zealand as well. I think finding ways that we can help support democracy in Indonesia is a very important priority and something we could work on together as well.

And thirdly the South-West Pacific, because – and I don’t want to put too fine a point on it - particularly in Melanesia and perhaps also in other ways in some of the Polynesian States, the experiment of the last couple of decades is failing. It’s failing to deliver things for the people of those countries and it is failing to deliver things for us, their neighbours who have an interest. We have to work out a new way of working with those countries. It’s a big intellectual task apart from anything else. There is no model out there ready made. Again we have very strong interests, both humanitarian in terms of the welfare of the people in those countries and in our own interests in terms of the problems for us from instability. That is a third area where I think Australia and New Zealand strategically need to be very closely involved. If we move the focus of our dialogue on our strategic cooperation away from the way we develop our defence forces towards the kinds of results we want to achieve not just with out defence forces but with wider foreign policy we would have a much better basis for working more closely together.

In short the way forward is to put armed force back where it belongs as the tool of foreign policy in the way we think about our shared activity and bring the objectives, the kind of region we want to live in and the way we want to get there, back to the front of the picture. I think that is the way to resolve the kinds of differences we have.

White’s analysis is about as seductive as it can get from the other side of the Tasman. In the nicest possible way he suggests that between the world of UN peace keeping and New Zealand’s utterly remote corner of the South-West Pacific, there is a region in which our closest (and culturally most accessible) neighbour has to be engaged. Furthermore, that engagement is in pursuit of outcomes that no imaginable New Zealand government could fail to echo.

It remains to be seen whether New Zealand politicians can bring themselves to set aside their pejorative middle-power lens in seeking to understand Australia’s geo-political orientation. And, in fairness, whether Australian politicians can explain that orientation in the sophisticated terms White advances. White’s logic is compelling. The customary vocabularly of trans-Tasman political exchange may not be the most reliable means of elaborating it.

[The extracts from White’s speech are taken – with very slight changes for readability – from an unpolished transcript of his lecture. A final version will be made available by the NZIIA in the New Year]

And while we’re on trans-Tasman affairs

… the NZ Government has published its formal response to the recommendations contained in the Report of the Foreign Affairs, Defence & Trade Select Committee’s into New Zealand’s Economic and Trade Relationship with Australia. Readers may recall from the June issue that upton-on-line had actually been cited by the Select Committee in support of more proposals for a trans-Tasman think tank and better quality exchanges between political, business and academic leaders. The Government’s response is supportive while leaving almost unlimited room for tactical withdrawal should nothing eventuate.

The proposal for regular Königswinter-style meetings of senior political, industry and academic leaders is deftly handled with the statement that “the Government will discuss this further with the Australian Government and with business, academia and other interested groups”. The proposal for a think tank with branches on each side of the Tasman funded by the Government of the other party is given even warier passage. How’s this for teflon-plated support:

“The Government supports the Committee’s suggestion that more analysis and research of trans-Tasman issues be encouraged. It is vital that this most important of New Zealand’s external relationships is underpinned by rigorous analysis that contributes to a greater understanding in each country of the other, and to more informed public and policy debate about the directions that should be taken in furthering economic integration. The Government will encourage New Zealand tertiary institutions to increase their research capability and effectiveness on trans-Tasman issues, in collaboration with Australian counterparts. It will also discuss with the Australian Government how Australia might support these objectives. The Government encourages New Zealand academic institutions to express an interest in this concept, and will discuss with Australia how it might be pursued jointly on both sides of the Tasman. The Government will refer this recommendation and response to the Tertiary Education Commission for its consideration.”

What more could one want – except a declared willingness to give it a go? Whenever government reports talk earnestly about the need for “rigorous analysis” you know there’s a fully armed sceptic in the closet. Mysteriously, the Government of New Zealand now defers to a quango of its own creation, the Tertiary Education Commission, on matters that go to the heart of its sovereign relations with Australia. Such scrupulous care in the vale of academic freedom can only be applauded. Except that there’s only one way this proposal will ever fly and that’s if the New Zealand Government puts some money on the table and hopes that will push Canberra to reciprocate.

This looks to be don’t-hold-your-breath territory. And that’s just not going to be enough to try to keep a corner of the Australian mind open to our concerns.

No room for a dedicated Minister either

The Select Committee’s proposal for a new cabinet portfolio with a Minister responsible for the Australian relationship gets decisively short shrift in these blunt terms:

“The relationship with Australia is so comprehensive that it impacts on all Ministerial portfolios. All Ministers are responsible for managing aspects of this relationship. Establishing a new Ministerial portfolio would duplicate responsibilities and risk confusion, particularly on those issues which are primarily domestic but which also have relevance to the Australian relationship. The Cabinet as a whole will continue to have ultimate responsibility for co-ordination and the Minister for Trade Negotiations will retain oversight of the economic and trade relationship with Australia, in consultation with other economic ministers.”

Upton-on-line hopes the Government and its advisers will be prepared to reconsider this judgement. Of course all Ministers are responsible for managing aspects of the relationship. But the reality is that, such are the domestic demands of office, it remains at the corner of their radar screens most of the time. There is never a real Australian expert at the cabinet table – someone who lives and breathes the politics, commerce and life of the place. A Minister who spends a lot of time there and makes it his or her job to become really expert in reading the pulse of our most important partner. We need more presence and profile than an Embassy and a Consulate can hope to muster.

At present, NZ cabinets miss all sorts of nuances – and strategic opportunities – through sheer lack of contact and despite the best efforts of over-stretched Ministers making over-night visits. Duplication and confusion? European countries manage to have Ministers responsible for European Affairs without getting in a muddle.

In upton-on-line’s view the Select Committee had the right idea. New Zealand advisers keep intoning gravely that New Zealand has to work much harder at this relationship than the other party given our dramatically different punching weights. But when it to comes to proposals that would demonstrate a new sense of urgency and engagement it always seems too hard (or is it too expensive?). Let’s hope the Select Committee won’t leave this one alone.

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