Principled or Pragmatic?
Posted on 14:23, February 7th, 2009 by Pablo
New Zealand is said to have a “principled and pragmatic” foreign policy. In fact, it is considered a model for small state participation in world affairs. Its support for UN peacekeeping, its role in the non-proliferation regime, its pursuit of open trade, its championing of international human rights and its advocacy of environmental protection are considered exemplary forms of small state behaviour on the global scene. But is New Zealand really following principles when it engages the world?
In spite of its human rights rhetoric, New Zealand actively trades with a host of authoritarian regimes without preconditions or qualifiers. Such trade partners include Iran, Kuwait, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Brunei, Singapore and of course the PRC. Its FTAs with the PRC and the authoritarian partners of the P4 trade bloc have no “after entry” provisions regarding labour rights, working conditions, child labor restrictions etc. That is the general rule. Rather than upholding international labor standards and other human rights baselines when promoting trade relationships, it appears that New Zealand abandons them entirely because it is seen as “bad for business.”
A similar situation holds true in the security field. Although New Zealand publicly trumpets its “blue-helmet” deployments in conflicts zones such as South Lebanon, the Sinai and Bosnia, it quietly operates with a range of foreign security agencies whose records are less than clean. That includes close cooperation with French intelligence, the perpetrators of the Rainbow Warrior bombing and manufacturers of false intelligence against Ahmed Zaoui; close military-to-military contact with Singapore; development of military-to-military contacts with the PRC, and ongoing intelligence cooperation on and service with US, Australian and UK military units in conflict zones in which NZ has publicly opposed the stance of its larger partners.
As for the NPT, climate change regime and international peacekeeping, perhaps the reasons for participation are less due to principle than to self-interest. Reducing the amount of WMD in the world reduces the potential for catastrophic confrontations and incidental fall-out, contamination and the like. From a self-interested perspective, the less the possibility of adversaries resorting to WMD, the more the possibility of conflict resolution short of total war. Likewise, if one subscribes to the view that climate change is dangerous to humanity, and that humans are major contributors to climate change, that is, climate change is a universal bad caused by people, then it is in New Zealand’s interest to help lead the charge against global warming, CFCs, rising sea levels etc. In parallel, participation in international peacekeeping can be seen as a form of insurance policy should NZ ever come under attack and its traditional allies are either involved or unwilling to come to its defence. Small states have a vested interest in multinational peacekeeping and defense simply because they are unilaterally vulnerable to the depredations of larger states. In the fluid international environment that is the post-Cold War era, where new powers are emerging, old powers are in decline, and pre-modern ideological conflicts have re-surfaced with a post-modern vengeance (and high tech weaponry), deploying on UN or regional multinational security missions is a self-interested hedge against the uncertainties of the moment. This includes participation in peacekeeping and policing within the southwestern Pacific, as instability and the threat of state failure in places like the Solomons and New Guinea (and further afield, Samoa and Tonga) are believed to invite the unwanted attention of outside powers and criminal organisations as well as spark refugee flows, cross-border tensions and increased levels of violence region-wide. Rather than principle, it could be that pragmatic assessments of longer-term consequences are what drives New Zealand’s approach to these issue-areas.
Labour is believed to be more idealist-principled in its foreign policy approach, whereas National is believed to be more realist-pragmatic. The irony is that other than the (now resolved) disputes over the antinuclear policy, Iraq invasion and dismantling of the tactical air wing, both major parties have, since the late 1990s, tacitly agreed on the overall thrust of New Zealand’s foreign affairs. The bottom line is that pragmatism governs approaches to self-perceived “core” interests, while principle is left to “peripheral” (rhetorical?)interests not essential to national survival and prosperity. Put anther way, the tacit bargain between Labour and National on foreign policy is to never let principle get in the way of pragmatic opportunity or necessity when it comes to international relations.