Gordon Campbell on Ardern, business confidence, and the worth of sanctions

4895ba9f86915be16f44The decision by Jacinda Ardern to end her term as Prime Minister on February 7 has come as a stunning surprise. It turns the task of a centre-left government winning re-election this year from difficult to nigh on impossible. No-one else among the Labour caucus has Ardern’s ability to explain and justify the choices that government is making – let alone to carry the attack to National, and expose its feeble credentials as an alternative government for all New Zealanders.

Since Grant Robertson has indicated he will not be putting his name forward for the top job, the choice probably comes down to Chris Hipkins or Michael Wood. They’re both able and hard-working, but leaders? Not so much. Between the two, Wood has the advantage of being the relatively fresher prospect. For now though, the overwhelming feelings are those of respect for what Ardern has accomplished for New Zealand both locally and on the world stage, deep regret at her departure, and best wishes for her return to private life.

Business confidence, forever fragile

Trying to track business confidence levels among CEOs seems a futile thing to do. Is the exercise ever likely to produce much more than what CEOs are saying to each other down at the golf club? If these anxiety prone CEO feelings of “confidence” really do influence or dictate how CEOs make their decisions to invest and employ staff, then we’re all in trouble.

Frankly, I do miss the good old days. You know, the days when our business entrepreneurs were swashbuckling types who would throw back their leonine heads and laugh at risk and the challenges of the unknown. (We shall not see their like again). In the meantime, for every survey that tries to detect exactly how many of our CEOs are having self-induced panic attacks, could we also have a ‘worker confidence’ survey right alongside it? I don’t think I’m glamorising the proletariat when I say that the workforce probably has a better grip on reality.

Footnote One: Reportedly, business confidence is at its lowest levels in 52 years. This is really absurd. New Zealand’s GDP grew by 3.7% during 2021, our levels of government debt are lower than every other Western democracy, unemployment is low, our terms of trade are healthy, and farmers enjoyed the best prices last year in more than a decade. Message to the tycoon sector: Buck up.

Yes, New Zealand’s inflation rate is very high (as it is everywhere else) but this is expected to decline over the course of the coming year. In Australia – a major market – inflation is firmly expected to be back within their central bank’s target range by mid 2024. Yes, a brief and shallow recession is due mid-year, but Moody’s rating agency is predicting this to consist of only a decline by 1%, peak to trough. All up, there is nothing to justify the most pessimistic business outlook in 52 years. Is our economy currently facing challenges bigger than when Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, and when OPEC inflicted the first of its oil shocks? No, didn’t think so.

Footnote Two: That crack about the gold club? That’s science, not snark. A few years ago, David Hood found a co-relation between business confidence levels among CEOs, and the extent of their leisure time.

Footnote Three: Can’t help thinking that business confidence will probably find the strength to climb off its death bed if National does happen to win this year’s general election. That’s because scientific polling indicates that 65% of the nation’s CEOs think Christopher Luxon is the bee’s knees, while the remainder of our CEOs think he’s the cat’s pyjamas.

Sanctions: Better than Nothing?

Sanctions are today’s alternative to overt military intervention, which always comes with a body count and a political cost. According to the Brookings Institute in Washington, modern sanctions exist to serve a variety of purposes: “ [They] discourage the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, bolster human rights, end terrorism, thwart drug trafficking, discourage armed aggression, promote market access, protect the environment, and replace governments.”

Right. That sounds ambitious. In reality, sanctions are a limited and inexpensive way of doing something a little more than nothing in situations where only an insignificant threat exists to anyone living outside the borders of the rogue nation in question. In addition, the Brookings think tank adds, sanctions have a feel good factor. They’re bracingly self-affirming:

They can serve the purpose of reinforcing a commitment to a behavioural norm, such as respect for human rights, or opposition to proliferation.

That brings us to a few of the current targets of global sanctions: Russia, Iran, and to a lesser degree, Afghanistan. The violations of human rights in these countries have led to New Zealand putting its weight behind an array of UN, NATO and US sanctions aimed at the countries in question and/or at a handful of the powerful individuals within them. Brookings offers a handy laundry list of the forms that such sanctions can take:

Arms embargoes, foreign assistance reductions and cut-offs, export and import limitations, asset freezes, tariff increases, revocation of most favoured nation (MFN) trade status, negative votes in international financial institutions, withdrawal of diplomatic relations, visa denials, cancellation of air links, and prohibitions on credit, financing, and investment.

Pushing the limits

But here’s the thing: Any attempt to measure the effectiveness of sanctions, has to be realistic about what they were ever likely to achieve in the first place. With Russia, the sanctions were intended to (a) disrupt Russia’s ability to bankroll a long war in Ukraine (b) reduce domestic support for the invasion by cranking up the hardships facing Russia’s civilians and (c) raise the chances of a palace coup in the Kremlin. At this point, a palace coup against Vladimir Putin seems very unlikely and – in any case – it would almost certainly install a nationalist leader who would be even worse.

Iran and Afghanistan are smaller nations facing a different slate of sanctions, even though both are heavily engaged in brutal oppression in general and in crushing women’s rights in particular. While the government oppression of women in Afghanistan is demonstrably worse than in Iran, the international clamour for sanctions against the mullahs in Teheran is far louder.

Why that should be says a lot about the role of sanctions within the international order. It also reflects the fact that the international media has access to images of the heroic protests in Iran, while the oppression within Afghanistan is being carried out in something close to a total media blackout.

I’m not denying – or diminishing – the fact that Iran’s clerics oversee a murderous, discredited regime, and that the regime’s attempts to crush the protests against the death in custody of Mahsa Amini continue to be despicable. These actions have also been consistent with the regime’s violent crushing of the Green revolution in 2009, and of the cost-of-living protests across Iran in 2017.

Even so, women retain a sizable number of rights within Iran that are denied to their sisters in Afghanistan. The Taliban are denying women and girls any access to secondary schooling and to jobs within government. These bans extend to forbidding women to attend university or work in NGOs, despite the importance of international aid organisations to the functioning of a society in which 97% of the population are estimated to be living in poverty.

In line with the Taliban’s policy of rendering women socially invisible, Afghanistan’s women have reportedly been banned since November from going to parks, gyms and swimming pools. Intimidation, beatings and revenge killings of former police and military personnel, government officials and politicians have been occurring ever since the fall of Kabul. Many of these outrages have been committed by the Taliban, and a few by Islamic State. These attacks culminated last week in the murder of Mursal Nabizada, a 32-year-old formerly prominent female lawmaker within the Afghan parliament. As yet, no group has claimed responsibility for Nabizada’s death.

Any early hope that the Taliban’s abject dependence on foreign aid and assistance would soften its behaviour vanished quite some time ago. If anything, the Taliban seem keen to demonstrate that their dependence on foreign aid won’t cause them to change their feudal, misogynistic social policies.

Similarly Iran’s execution last week of the British/Iranian former politician Alireza Akbari seemed to be a warning shot to Britain over its plans to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation. Conclusion: Rather than alter behaviour or bring about regime change, sanctions seem more likely to cause the targeted regime to double down, with drastic consequences for the people singled out to make a point.

Despite the calls by Green MP Golriz Ghahraman for our government to declare the Revolutionary Guard to be a terrorist entity, New Zealand has not yet done so. Instead, New Zealand has chosen to be a party to UN/US sanctions against trade with Iran. Since these have mainly served to reduce the living standard of ordinary Iranians, New Zealand has also deployed a range of targeted travel and economic sanctions against specific individuals within the Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary, the top tiers of government, and the basij para-military forces.

Yet – significantly – we have not brought in a fresh round of targeted sanctions against powerful Taliban officials, beyond those that already existed, say, against the Haqqani network while it was still in exile in Pakistan. Why the different approach? It seems that we prefer to keep aid and diplomatic channels (of sorts) open with Afghanistan, even though its brutality (especially against women) is even greater than what is evident within Iran.

To repeat: Sanctions are a political alternative (a) to be seen to be doing nothing or (b) mounting a military invasion, with all the costs in blood and economic cost that such invasions always incur. Even as virtue signalling in support of international norms, sanctions have only limited value and effect. They preach to the converted. Given the nature of the regimes we’re dealing with, sanctions are also likely to make things drastically worse for a few unlucky individuals. But hey… In many cases, sanctions are all we can do, however ineffectually.

Footnote One: The role economic and political sanctions played in bringing down the apartheid regime in South Africa was an exception, not a model. At the time in the 1980s, the US was the only genuine global superpower. Its belated support for sanctions against South Africa proved to be the final straw. In today’s multipolar world when sanctions are applied by the West, the sanctions will leak. The regimes being targeted can and do turn to China in particular, but also to Russia, Turkey and India (among others) for relief and assistance.

Footnote Two: Even Israel has not lent support to the West’s goals on Ukraine. As the Haaretz newspaper has noted here and also here, Israel has provided only tepid support to Ukraine, and to the West’s sanctions against Russia. In Syria, Russia’s role is very important to Israel, and Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly has a close personal relationship with Putin.

As Haaretz also noted, Israel called in the Ukrainian ambassador to complain about Kyev’s vote to support a UN probe into Israel’s occupation of Palestine. It made no similar protest to Russia, which had also voted for the UN probe.

New in 2023

Here are a few of the new year’s new releases. Thisvideo for Truth Club’s catchy, post punk track “Its Time” offers some good advice on what to do if ever a flaming skull steals your dog:

Jenny Ognibene is a New York born singer songwriter who now works out of Los Angeles. Reportedly, she saw the words for the title of this new single written around a mirror frame found in a mountain cabin in a Californian sequoia forest that was destroyed by fire only a few weeks later.

New year, and a new Willie Nelson track. Not for the first time, Nelson has recorded the Harlan Howard tune “ Busted” that was formerly a hit for Ray Charles back when Charles was first doing his ground-breaking fusions of r&b and country music. Written 60 years ago, “Busted” seems eternally topical. You could say much the same about Willie Nelson himself, who is due to turn 90 on April 29 this year.