Principled or Pragmatic?

datePosted 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.

13 Responses to “Principled or Pragmatic?”

  1. Anita on February 7th, 2009 at 15:55

    “NPT”? It’s a slow sunny day here, perhaps I would usually know but today I don’t :)

  2. Pablo on February 7th, 2009 at 15:57

    NPT=Non Proliferation Treaty

  3. Graeme Edgeler on February 7th, 2009 at 16:52

    Such trade partners include Iran, Kuwait, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar (none of whom are party to the 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights), Brunei, Singapore and of course the PRC.

    New Zealand is also not party to the 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights. No-one is.

  4. Pablo on February 7th, 2009 at 17:15

    Graeme. You have me confused. My understanding is that NZ was one of the original signatories to the UDHR, but the Arab states I mentioned objected to some of the language on religious grounds while other countries (in Asia) objected on grounds that it was an (imperialist) violation of the sovereignty. Subsequent conventions have expanded the scope of the UDHR into a number of other areas (indigenous rights, the rights of children), with NZ being party to those conventions and the others not. How did I get it wrong?

  5. Graeme Edgeler on February 7th, 2009 at 18:34

    Graeme. You have me confused. My understanding is that NZ was one of the original signatories to the UDHR, but the Arab states I mentioned objected to some of the language on religious grounds while other countries (in Asia) objected on grounds that it was an (imperialist) violation of the sovereignty.

    The UDHR isn’t a treaty or convention, merely a Declaration (i.e. all that ever happened for it come into existence was a non-binding General Assembly vote – 48 in favour (NZ and Iran included), none against, 8* abstentions). There are no signatories.

    It’s not international law in the way the ICCPR or the ICESCR (or more recent treaties like UNCROC) are (they have signatories, need to be ratified, etc.). A state cannot accede to the UDHR, or become a party to it – in 1948, the UN General Assembly passed a bunch of resolutions, one of which declared a number of things to be the inalienable rights of all members of the human family.

    You cannot be a party to a General Assembly Resolution: you can have voted for it, or against it, can have abstained from voting, or not been a member state at the time of its adoption … but once passed, it is just a resolution.

    The rights in that resolution subsequently formed the basis of the ICCPR (Iran signed in 1968, ratified in 1975; Kuwait ratified in 1996) and the ICESCR (signed/ratified by Iran and Kuwait in the same manner as the ICCPR).

    I would note too that the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is in a similar position to the UDHR, it is a general assembly resolution declaring a bunch of things to be the case. New Zealand was one of four countries (along with Australia, Canada, and the United States) to vote against it.

    * Belarus, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Ukraine, the USSR and Yugoslavia.

  6. Pablo on February 7th, 2009 at 18:55

    Thanks Graeme. I stand corrected on several accounts. i took out the reference to the UDHR so as to avoid misrepresentation on that issue. Your point about NZ opposing indigenous rights conventions is interesting, to say the least. I guess the bottom line is what I was alluding to: the so-called idealist-moralist foundation of NZ foreign policy is more of a chimera than a reality.

  7. Phil Sage (sagenz) on February 7th, 2009 at 22:47

    New Zealand is said to have a “principled and pragmatic” foreign policy. In fact, it is considered a model for small state participation

    Agreed with that as a statement strongly supported by history

    …. New Zealand… quietly operates with a range of foreign security agencies whose records are less than clean. That includes…. 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.

    You honestly suggest that New Zealand should launch is moral high horse off a cliff and not particpate with the generally accepted bastions of global democracy?

    But is New Zealand really following principles when it engages the world?

    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.”

    How much less stable would global security be if PRC had not been engaged with in open trade. The cultural revolution killed tens of millions when there was no engagement with the West. The credit crunch is reducing demand for Chinese products. That is a massively growing source of instability for China. Free Trade with countries where the rules of law operates is always better than idealistic trade embargo’s. That applies equally to US – Cuba as it does to those links you criticise New Zealand for.

    The only way to achieve long term principles is engagement. Imposing Western labour standards on developing economies is the height of hypocrisy. When the choice is between starvation and making a few pennies an hour it is clear. The West consumes more and makes the world more prosperous precisely because those goods are so cheap. Force the price up and the job goes away.

    I have to make the point that the post cold war period ended on 911. We are now right in the midst of the Clash of Civilisations. And with the latest news on security coming out of Iraq, we are winning. Free trade is gradually bringing PRC onto the Western side.

    New Zealand foriegn policy must build on what has been achieved so far. I have never understood why the non nuclear policy is not sold to the US as being the logical conclusion of NPT. Articulated that way New zealand has voluntarily gone where the US is encouraging everyone else to go.

    captcha: either whip

    or hug i presume? :)

  8. Graeme Edgeler on February 7th, 2009 at 23:12

    Your point about NZ opposing indigenous rights conventions is interesting, to say the least. I guess the bottom line is what I was alluding to: the so-called idealist-moralist foundation of NZ foreign policy is more of a chimera than a reality.

    I believe the NZ Government found problem with four articles in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, principally this:

    Article 26
    1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.

    [The others were Article 28 (redress) and Articles 19 & 32 (‘veto’)]

    Simply put, they weren’t prepared to support something they weren’t prepared to implement. I believe the other countries that opposed it (all with largish indigenous minorities) did so on a similar basis. I suspect some of those who supported it just don’t intend to live by their words (e.g. some countries in South America with indigenous Indian populations).

    At the time the UN was debating the matter, the New Zealand Government argued:

    It appears to require recognition of rights to lands now lawfully owned by other citizens, both indigenous and non-indigenous. This ignores contemporary reality and would be impossible to implement.

    The declaration also implies that indigenous people should have a right of veto over parliamentary law-making.

    Interestingly, had the Declaration actually been a treaty, New Zealand may have been able to sign it – while entering reservations and understandings to the bits it wasn’t a fan of.

    see also: http://www.nzembassy.com/info.cfm?CFID=7908039&CFTOKEN=28311805&c=51&l=124&s=to&p=63315

  9. reid on February 8th, 2009 at 01:55

    Factoring principle into foreign policy decisions is a slippery slope because principle is extremely nebulous and varies sometimes across generations and usually between administrations. A nation’s foreign policy has to be stable and predictable because it, over time, builds a nation’s reputation and the more that principle becomes involved in the decision making, the less stable it becomes.

    National interest a.k.a. national security, on the other hand, is capable of being expressed in concrete apolitical terms, notwithstanding that advisers and politicians don’t always get the analysis entirely correct.

    National interest and principle occasionally coincide. However, IMO that needs to be a fortuitous confluence rather than become a driver.

    For example, when Peters became involved in the North/South Korean negotiations, why did he do it? To build trade relationships, to curry favour with Rice, or because he thought he could help facilitate a solution with the Koreans? I hope it was all three. But what was the main reason and, more to the point, what should have been the main reason?

    Just because we primarily build our policies upon national interest doesn’t mean we sell our principles down the river, it’s merely that if it comes down to a question of whether we should trade with say, Zimbabwe, then in my view, the question should be resolved in terms of how it would affect our other relationships and not upon whether it would be “morally” right or wrong.

  10. reid on February 8th, 2009 at 02:12

    Further to previous, the Bush 43 Administration is actually a very good example of the effect of foreign policies built more on principle than on national interest, that is, if you believe that the neo-cons held considerable sway and influence over the US foreign policy that emerged during the Bush 43 years.

    The neo-cons are extremist ideologues and therefore are driven by principle to an extreme degree. You only have to look at the PNAC material to recognise that.

    The resultant effect upon the US global reputation is not good, by my reading, and furthermore, it has led to a perception of unpredictability, which is not only counter-productive, but dangerous, both for the US and for the world.

  11. Pablo on February 8th, 2009 at 16:09

    Phil: Good point abut how the non-nuke policy could have been better phrased as an NPT issue. It still would not have appeased the Reagan administration, but it would have been more palatable to the State Dept and Democrats in Congress at the time.

    reid: Since I was trained in the realist school I tend to side with the pragmatists. Having said that, I also had a part to play in trying to implement the Clinton administration’s “Wilsonian pragmatism” in Latin America, so can see the utility of the “principled but pragmatic” stance. I am not sure that the neo-con project for the world was principled, but it sure was not realist or pragmatic!

    The point of the post was to note the incompatibility of a moral-ethical foreign policy rhetoric (particularly by a small state such as NZ) and the realities of the world as given. I tend to think that it is best to use principle as an internal moral compass rather than wear it openly on the foreign policy sleeve. That way NZ cannot be accused of hypocrisy or double-standards in its international affairs. Yet the NZ Left, including Labour in government, likes to publicly fashion itself as being more morally virtuous than the Right when it comes to foreign policy. My post was written to briefly show why that may not be the case, so as to allow our Left readers to ponder the balance between altruism, idealism, pragmatism and necessity in the conduct of foreign affairs.

  12. What would Hayek say on February 9th, 2009 at 15:32

    Interesting post Pablo – drawing it out a bit further, can you see a similar approach being developed within NZ for internal domestic policy?

    Or is there a particular different set of factors with foreign policy that means a similar approach will not (or is not currently) be developed internally?

    I’m assuming that a particular set of cultural, social, moral, economic (take your pick) are responsible for our foreign policy so wonder why there should be any differene for internal politics?

    There maybe a strong case to argue that the battle for the center means that we should be seeing a similar internal and foreign policy by the major parties.

    Thanks for the post Pablo and I hope you continue providing stimulating and reasoned discussion.

  13. Pablo on February 9th, 2009 at 18:07

    WwHs: Thanks for the compliment. As for your questions, I assume that the NZ government operates from the premise that an internal majority consensus operates within NZ as to the boundaries of domestic policy whereas an external consensus does not (or at least not entirely). Under conditions of international anarchy, pragmatism would be the default option, even if self-interest determines the pursuit of seemingly “idealistic” objectives like a comprehensive test ban. Thus rhetoric about principle may be more for domestic consumption and consumption by other similarly minded states than a real driver of foreign policy.
    Where the approaches to internal and external policy may overlap is in the increasingly “technocratic” orientation of policy elites who seek to “depoliticise” their decision-making and justify it accordingly. The supposedly rationalist and efficientist criteria for policy formulation, evaluation and implementation substitutes the policy expertise of career civil servants for the will of the people as expressed electorally, since voters are considered to be more impulsive, manipulable and less informed about the minutiae of policy-making. Foreign affairs traditionally tends to be more insulated from public opinion and justified according to “technocratic” criteria, but in recent times that justification has increasingly made its presence felt in domestic policy discussions. The irony is that in trying to “depoliticise” policy-making, political elites make a conscious (politica)l decision to put distance between stakeholders and decision-makers (principals and agents, if you will). That is what modern authoritarians have been doing for some time now (some with considerable success), but it is only a problem if such criteria dominates under conditions of liberal democracy. After all, the masses may be asses but it is they who arguably should have the last say in setting the direction of policy-making because it is they who are the most affected by it.

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