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From a principled but pragmatic to a pandering approach to foreign policy.

datePosted on 17:11, June 27th, 2010 by Pablo

My latest article on New Zealand foreign policy after the Cold War has appeared in Political Science Quarterly. Unfortunately the article is behind a pay wall but there is a synopsis that outlines its basic thrust (copyright provisions prevent me from reproducing it here). In the essay I examine the economic, diplomatic and military threads of New Zealand foreign policy after 1990, arguing that New Zealand has combined realist, idealist and constructivist approaches in a “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy that has allowed it to punch above its weight in international affairs. The reason for that was because the principled but pragmatic foreign policy  gave New Zealand diplomatic autonomy and independence even as it maintained traditional alliances and UN commitments while forging new foreign relations. That provided NZ with room for policy maneuver  and an international role uncommon to small states. Since the article is in a refereed professional journal there is a fair bit of theoretical discussion and conceptual framing, but for the lay reader the important thing to note is that by the end of the 1990s and some minor differences notwithstanding, this broad approach to foreign policy was shared by Labour and National alike, something that gave consistency, continuity and respect to New Zealand’s international endeavours.

Not any more. Over the last year it has become apparent that National has de-emphasised, if not abandoned the idealist and constructivist strands of post Cold War foreign policy, and has replaced true realism with what can only be characterised as a pandering approach to international affairs. The latter is characterised by obsequious solicitation of  larger states in pursuit of material favours, no matter how unsavory the regime, unhappy the involvement or demeaning of Kiwi notions of democracy, universal human rights and international peace that approach may be. Be it the shifting rationale for having NZDF troops in Afghanistan (and shifting assessments of their chance of success), trade deals with Arab oligarchies and Asian despots, reorienting NZ aid programs towards cronyistic business ventures, the failure to pursue justice over the sinking of the NZ-flagged Ady Gill (and the illegal arrest and trial of its skipper), or  in John Key personally apologising to the PRC for Russell Norman’s antics at parliament during a visit by the Chinese vice president, it appears that the National government will bend as far over as it can to accommodate the desires of its foreign patrons, even if at the expense of its hard won reputation in the international arena. Career diplomats must be shaking their heads in disbelief as they see New Zealand’s image as an honest international broker and independent global citizen tarnished by this pandering, solicitous approach to foreign affairs.

To put things bluntly: After a long history of of conducting itself with dignity and autonomy on the international stage, New Zealand has become just another cheap trick on the boulevard of small states. Like the difference between house call escorts and street hookers, the difference between National’s foreign policy and that of small island states that exchange their votes for cash and credit in the International Whaling Commission is one of degree, not substance. That is a shame, and quite shameful. After all, a reputation built over decades can be ruined in days due to impaired judgement, narrow self-interest and opportunistic alignment. When it comes to foreign affairs, National appears to be saddled with all three vices.

The question is whether the damage it is doing to New Zealand’s international reputation will outlive National’s hold on government. One can only hope that MFAT is working hard to ensure that it does not.

5 Responses to “From a principled but pragmatic to a pandering approach to foreign policy.”

  1. gingercrush on June 27th, 2010 at 22:11

    trade deals with Arab oligarchies and Asian despots

    Examples? Because from what I can see trade agreements or deals have been initiated or formally signed before Key and National came into power.

    And personally I’ve always seen this country as one that panders. I also think we’ve been rather guilty of expecting Pacific Islands to pander to us.

    Nothing that you’ve cited shows a change in direction. I’d also argue in the latter two examples that Labour would have done the exact same thing. And it seems some foreign policy experts agree that we should have apologised to the Chinese.Reorienting NZ aid program is hardly going from a principled but pragmatic to a pandering approach.

    As for us being in Afghanistan and this government’s reasoning for us being there. As far as I’m concerned a far better example is Fiji. Where we pander to pathetic ideals of democracy and take a wholly stupid approach to our relationship with the Fijian military.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I do think we have a pandering approach to Foreign Policy but to me we’ve always had that approach. And what you cite as examples of a sudden shift in our approach on Foreign Policy is on the whole meaningless.

  2. Pablo on June 27th, 2010 at 22:36


    You are correct in noting that the 5th Labour government pursued trade deals avidly. After all, the current Trade Minister worked for that government when he negotiated the deal with the PRC and the P4, and it was his vision of the utility of trade deals with larger states that propelled NZ’s approach to the subject. National has now moved to include Vietnam to the P4+N discussions and ramp the current minilateral deal with the GCC into a full fledged regional FTA, so they are not averse to dealing with dictators (all of this is detailed in uneditorialised fashion in the article I mentioned at the onset, and I have posted on the contours and tradeoffs involved in NZ’s trade policy in previous KP posts as well as over at Scoop).

    Norman may may have played the role of provocateur, but a simple MFAT statement regretting the incident was all that was needed. Personal apologies from the PM is akin to bowing and scraping IMO.

    There may be reasons to be in Afghanistan but National has clearly signaled that its main reason for re-sending the NZSAS and increasing the NZ civilian presence is to cozy up to the US in pursuit of a trade deal. Although there are linkages between security and trade, this is quite a vulgar approach to making such a linkage.

    I agree that the approach to Fiji is a hash, one of Labour’s making based on a misguided sense of principle and its own diplomatic leverage. National is now working to quietly mend fences, so perhaps pragmatism has taken over from principle on that issue.

    I would also argue that when you shift the foreign aid focus from poverty reduction to economic growth and subject it to corporate managerial logics, you have in fact shifted its priorities in ways the cater to selected rather than universal interests.

    All of which is to say that you are dead wrong in claiming that pandering has always been NZ’s approach to its foreign relations. If so we would still be a part of ANZUS and would have pulled an Ozzie in Iraq, among other things. The seeds for the shift may have been sown by the 5th Labour government after its first term, but the overt shift to a pandering strategy is clearly National’s.

  3. Hugh on June 27th, 2010 at 23:31

    Pablo, even if you see a discontinuity between the aid philosophies of the Clark and Key governments, what the Key government is doing is very much in line with the Bolger-Shipley government’s approach to aid provision. In the 1990s the focus was almost exclusively on economic development and trade promotion too.

    So, again, hard to see a radical discontinuity occurring in 2008.

  4. Phil Sage on June 29th, 2010 at 02:36

    Pablo – I think what the rest of us believe is that the 5th Labour government was the aberration. That lead to leaving Nato, limited involvement in the first gulf war and a longer term recognition we needed to help lift the heavy weight of armed intervention to reset the damage done by David Lange and co.

  5. Hugh on June 29th, 2010 at 10:43

    Phil, NZ was never in NATO. I think you mean ANZUS, and even then, technically, we never left ANZUS, we just had our participation suspended.

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