The Kiss Of Fealty: In return for their protection, we place ourselves in the thrall of those powerful enough to provide it. Their enemies become our enemies, and when they ask for "a service", or "make us an offer", we dare not refuse. No matter whether the powerful be kings, gangsters or nation states, the relationship is always the same.
NEW ZEALAND is a vassal state: always has been; probably always will be. We are a small and vulnerable country whose security remains the obligation of much stronger powers. For a quarter-century, while the rest of the world re-arranged itself after the Cold War, we have enjoyed the illusion of independence. Now, thanks to Kim Dotcom, the age of illusion is over.
“Nuclear-Free New Zealand” may have ruffled the feathers of the American eagle and turned the ANZUS Treaty into a dead letter, but it did not amputate the New Zealand pinky finger from the Anglo-Saxon fist. Our membership of the UKUSA Agreement linking the intelligence agencies of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand remained intact throughout.
The United States may have excluded the New Zealand Defence Force from its military and naval exercises and blanked our diplomats at Washington cocktail parties, but its National Security Agency (NSA) never shut down the continuous feed of signals intelligence (SIGINT) from our Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).
Labour and National Governments may come and go, but “Echelon”, the NSA’s global SIGINT collection and analysis network, is forever – as are the GCSB’s electronic eavesdroppers at the Tangimoana and Waihopai “listening posts”.
It’s what vassals do: they pay their dues.
Medieval lords held their lands from the king and within the boundaries of those lands their word was law. In return, the king’s vassals were obliged to take the king’s part in all quarrels, pay his taxes and send men and supplies to fight in his wars. Those who served a medieval vassal needed two good eyes. One to watch over their lord’s needs and the other to look out for the interests of their king.
It did not suit the United States to make too much of their vassal state’s breach of fealty in the late-1980s. It’s anti-nuclear policy may have posed “the threat of a good example” (to use Noam Chomsky’s trenchant phrase) but for the makers of the Washington Consensus that threat was more than off-set by the Lange Government’s radical example of free-market economics. So long as New Zealand remained a part of the Echelon network, a few relatively gentle diplomatic slaps would suffice as punishment.
Had David Lange and his ministers got serious about severing New Zealand’s military and intelligence connections to the US, and attempted to pull the plug at Tangimoana and Waihopai, then the reaction of the Reagan Administration would have been very different – and much more painful.
The full force of American retribution was, however, avoided because the servants of the New Zealand state all had two good eyes. While Treasury kept Washington’s good-will by persuading the Lange government to implement the most radical structural adjustment programme ever attempted in the OECD, the New Zealand foreign affairs, defence and intelligence communities quietly reassured their American counterparts that a bi-partisan policy of incremental reconnection to the United States was the New Zealand (if not the Labour) government’s Number One priority.
And so it has proved. The smiling face of Mr Leon Panetta, the US Secretary of Defence, and his good news about New Zealand’s warships’ re-admittance to America’s naval facilities, was startling vindication of our foreign affairs and defence establishment’s patient diplomacy. The king’s favour has been restored: the kiss of fealty given and received.
Fitting, too, that just days after receiving our liege lord’s blessing, New Zealand’s Prime Minister and his deputy were forced to reveal its price. Remembering always that a king’s enemies are his vassal’s enemies also. And Mr Dotcom is, without doubt, the United States’ enemy.
Those New Zealanders who were surprised and alarmed by the extreme light-handedness of the political oversight of our security and intelligence services are still trapped in the illusion of independence. Our political leaders learned long ago what lapses in loyalty can mean for a vassal state. Much better to leave these matters to the permanent guardians of our own – and our masters’ – interests.
How else to explain Bill English’s casual admission that, were he given it all to do again, he wouldn’t hesitate to re-order the suppression of all evidence relating to the activities of the GCSB. Why else would John Key refuse a comprehensive and transparent inquiry into the illegal surveillance of Mr Dotcom? And be backed in his refusal by a former Labour Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer?
“You can’t have an open inquiry like a commission of inquiry with evidence in public about that,” Sir Geoffrey told TV3’s The Nation, “because these agencies will cease to be any use if their secrecy is not preserved”.
Of use to whom?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 October 2012.