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Small feels Large, but only to the Small.

datePosted on 14:37, November 14th, 2010 by Pablo

From the rhetoric and doe-eyed looks emanating from the PM and Foreign Minister during the signing of the so-called “Wellington Declaration,” one would have thought that NZ had just been awarded most favoured nation status by the US and assumed a place akin to that of France or Germany in US foreign policy. This belief seems to have gone to the head of the PM, who has taken to lecturing larger states such as Japan on NZ expectations when it comes to trading agreements. The truth is a bit different.

The “strategic partnership” announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirms what has been apparent to the international security community since 2001: NZ quietly dropped its concerns about engaging in military-to-military relations with the US in exchange for the US routinely granting executive permission for these to occur. NZ military deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter reportedly involving more than just the one year rotation of combat engineers in Basra, something that the NZ government refuses to acknowledge), as well as NZ commitment of intelligence assets to both tactical and strategic intelligence gathering at home and abroad (such as the deployment of GCSB and SIS personnel to Afghanistan) all occurred without fanfare and in spite of the formal ban of military exchanges and exercises in effect since the dissolution of the ANZUS alliance. Not having US Navy surface ship port visits in NZ does not deter US submarines from entering NZ territorial waters with or without NZ government connivance, and any look at video of NZDF troops in action in foreign locales clearly shows that they work in close proximity to US troops and preferentially use US equipment during the conduct of their combat operations.

The Wellington Declaration just makes public this discreet relationship, which even as it deepens and becomes standardised over the long-term will not require signing of a formal alliance treaty. The latter is seen as an encumbrance for domestic political reasons on both sides (since both the US Congress and NZ Parliament would see opposition to the signing of a bilateral security treaty), so much as in the way the US conducts its foreign wars (which is to not seek Congressional ratification of a declaration of war for fear of opposition, but instead to use Executive authority as commander-in-chief to declare a state of national security emergency requiring military combat deployments abroad that presents Congress with a fait accompli), the Wellington Declaration circumvents legislative scrutiny at the same time that it reaffirms the obvious close security ties that exist between the two states.

What changed most clearly is that while Labour prefers to soft peddle the relationship due to its internal factional dynamics, National has always had issues with the “independent and autonomous” foreign policy stance that has characterised NZ diplomatic relations since the early 1990s. Although it cannot reverse the anti-nuclear policy due to domestic political factors, National has always worked to reaffirm its “traditional” security ties, to the point that it supported NZ joining the US-led “coalition of the willing” that invaded and occupied Iraq without UN authorisation. With the Wellington Declaration it has gotten its wish.

But sometimes getting what one wishes for brings with it unanticipated trouble. By formally committing to a strategic partnership with the US, overlapped on National’s commitment to engaging closer military ties with Australia, NZ has in effect become a posse member for the global sheriff and its Antipodean deputy. The closer the level of military engagement between NZ and its larger military partners (quaintly called “interoperability” in the jargon), the more dependent it becomes on them for strategic guidance, material support, operational readiness and deployed force security. This makes it more likely, in spite of National’s assurances that NZ always retains the option to refuse a request, that NZ will wind up becoming involved in conflicts not of its choice but that of its strategic partners. That in turn raises the specter of NZ developing, by way of military coat-tailing, hostile relations with countries and cultures with which it historically has had no quarrel, which will spell the end of its “independent and autonomous” diplomatic posture.

What Mr. Key and his company of advisors appear to not understand is that the US rapprochement with NZ is due to two basic strategic factors, one general and one specific, that have little to do with interest in NZ per se. The first general reason is that, after a delay in responding due to the obsession with counter-terrorism in the Middle East and Central Asia, the US has moved to counter Chinese advances in the Western Pacific basin, which it sees as the next big strategic conflict zone. Not only is it in the process of moving the bulk of its military assets into the Pacific, in a reversal of the century-old Atlantic and Euro-centric orientation that characterised its strategic outlook until recently. It has also reaffirmed its bilateral security ties to all of its Asian partners as well as India. This includes Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, NZ and even Viet Nam. This defensive arc covers countries deeply concerned about Chinese neo-imperialist ambitions, many of whom have diplomatic or territorial disputes with the Chinese, and along with its soft power projection in the Pacific Island Forum countries (including Fiji, where the US has just announced the resumption of US AID development work), the US is moving to counter Chinese influence in SE Asia and beyond (most often gained via so-called “chequebook diplomacy” whereby China promotes infrastructure development projects with no apparent strings attached but which all have potentially dual civilian and military applications). The Wellington Declaration just adds NZ to the roster of US security partners that constitute a collective hedge against the looming Chinese presence, which is particularly noteworthy because of NZ’s increased dependency on Chinese investment and trade for its economic fortunes.

With the Wellington Declaration Chinese influence and ambitions in NZ are potentially fence-ringed. That may have been National’s undeclared intent, and if so that is the hypothetical NZ gain from the deal. But all of that remains to be seen  (if nothing else because it would contravene National’s public assurances that it welcomes the Chinese investment and cultural presence on NZ shores–cue revelations about Pansy Wong and her long obviously dodgy failed businessman-husband, who just might have caught US negative interest given the Chinese penchant for placing intelligent assets in their diaspora).

The second, specific strategic purpose that the Wellington Declaration serves is US nuclear counter-proliferation efforts. Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration has a basic, and apparently sincere interest in reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond those that currently possess them. Having a small “neutral” non-nuclear state as a partner in such efforts provides a convenient and effective cover (some might say fig leaf), particularly with regards to “rogue” states such as North Korea and Iran. NZ has already participated in the Six Party negotiations on the North Korean nuclear programme, helping to gain a delay in Pyongyang’s efforts to achieve full weapons capability. In Iran’s case, NZ’s strong economic ties to the mullah’s regime is seen as providing a source of indirect diplomatic access and backdoor entry into the Iranian mindset with regards to nukes (via diplomatic and intelligence service information sharing). In other words, working with and through NZ on matters of nuclear proliferation, the US gains diplomatic cover for its own self-interested reasons to oppose the spread of the universally recognised deterrent.

What NZ does not get out of this strategic partnership, and which the National government continues to wax deluded about, is improved negotiating status with the US with regard to bilateral trade. The US is content to allow the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations to take their course with respect to trade with NZ and other small Pacific partners, and domestic political considerations accentuated by the recent midterm elections make it nigh impossible for NZ’s leading export sector, dairy, to make inroads into the subsidised US market. Truth be told, for the US there is no “issue-linkage” between security and trade when it comes to NZ even if its rhetoric continues to hold out the promise of such being the case sometime in the future. Yet the current (and to be fair, the past) NZ government continues to insist that, “difficulties” notwithstanding, bilateral trade with the US in forthcoming if not imminent because of NZ efforts across a range of issues of mutual interest without qualification or constraint.

This is where Mr. Key and Mr. McCully fail the foreign policy leadership test. Given the US strategic interests at play, and its absolute need to secure partnership agreements that catered to these interests given the evolving world balance of power, NZ was in a position to bargain hard and leverage its credentials (mostly Labour-made) as an honest broker and reliable international interlocutor into some form of tangible, immediate benefit in exchange for accepting the role of US strategic partner. That did not happen. Instead, what NZ got was platitudes, promises and bilateral yearly meetings between foreign policy counterparts, something that is par for the course for any number of nations, in what essentially amounted to a stop-over on Secretary Clinton’s trip to more important meetings with the US proxy that is Australia. As a result of that brief rendezvous,  NZ is now saddled with the burden of being internationally perceived to be (if not in fact)  more closely tied to the US without the full benefits of being so. It is a junior partner of the US in security only, and that is bound to be noticed by the international community.

In effect, NZ is just a small cog in a larger US strategic plan that is influenced by factors that have nothing to do with NZ interests and all to do with how the US sees and proposes to shape the strategic environment currently evolving in the Western Pacific and with regard to nuclear proliferation. National believes that it has made NZ a “player” by signing a strategic partnership agreement with the US, but the truth is that it has committed the country to a relationship that has always been one sided and which just got more so. To put it bluntly: the Tories may feel big as a result of the “Wellington Declaration” but they still are small and myopic when it comes to perceiving, much less comprehending the bigger picture, to say nothing of  the realities at stake down the road.

PS: The farce only gets better. NZ announced that it is in FTA negotiations with authoritarian, crime mob-dominated klepto-oligarchic Russia even though it admits that Foreign Affairs and Trade have very limited Russian language comprehension skills and the deal will involve Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (Russia negotiating for them, presumably), two states that NZ has admitted to having”limited” knowledge about (to include comprehension of Tajik or Uzbek dialects). In other words, National has staked its claim to being at the forefront of free trade agreements without understanding the business and political culture, much less language or human rights conditions, of potential partners just after it committed to a long-term security partnership with a country that has a troublesome relationship with all three.  This is amateurism taken to art-level heights.

27 Responses to “Small feels Large, but only to the Small.”

  1. Quentin on November 14th, 2010 at 17:35

    Myopic indeed! I am going to have fun with my Masters on this very subject Yippeee! Oh here’s a thought to add to the mix- what about the Indian Ocean as “conflict zone”? I smell something there in that “benign” spot…

  2. Pablo on November 14th, 2010 at 17:49


    Calm down. There is trouble ahead and it is precisely because people like you, Lew, Anita, Chris T. or Phil Sage (and many others who do not comment here) are not involved in long-term strategic forecasting, internal or external. We would undoubtably disagree on any number of specifics but out of that debate a longer-term strategic consensus as to what we want to be, much less mean as a nation could better emerge. Instead the likes of Key and McCully speak for all of us without proper consultation or foresight.

    They DO NOT speak for me.

  3. Quentin on November 14th, 2010 at 18:47

    Calm down? Yes, yes ok. We certainly do live in weird times and yes – THEY don’t speak for me either!

  4. Bruce Hamilton on November 15th, 2010 at 09:02

    Maybe our politicians see benefits for our defence force, which they consider isn’t making good decisions?.

    It’s a pity we have aligned with the US, but we ( and Oz ) have also been less than helpful neighbours, even driving some pacific states towards Asia. The US may see we can help project their world view into the region, seeing we no longer have one.

    National insecurity has been a common trait of National governments ( first the UK, then the US ), it’s almost like they don’t trust themselves to make sensible independent decisions without upsetting major powers.

  5. Quentin on November 15th, 2010 at 09:20

    Bruce, QUOTE:

    National insecurity has been a common trait of National governments ( first the UK, then the US ), it’s almost like they don’t trust themselves to make sensible independent decisions without upsetting major powers.


    This is a powerful point. There would seem to be an immaturity in decision-making about national security and foreign policy issues in this country. A sore reminder that we have a lot to learn -if we really want to move into the twenty-first century.

  6. Chris Trotter on November 15th, 2010 at 11:41


    I’ve been attempting to pierce the veil of the future, Pablo, for the best part of 30 years.

    Looking back, I reckon I’ve got about half of my short-term predictions right, but for the most part I’m still waiting to find out whether my long-term predictions were accurate (which makes a lot of sense if you think about it).

    The variables in any human situation are so mind-bogglingly numerous, and the role of pure contingency so crucial, that it’s hardly surprising the track-record of strategic forecasting and forecasters is a pretty poor one.

    Just think of the CIA and the (unpredicted) collapse of the Soviet Empire. Or all those futurologists who predicted that the computer was going to give us more leisure-time. Or – my personal favourite – the confident prediction that, on the cusp of the 1960s, the West was entering “the end of ideology”.

    I’ve come to appreciate more and more, as the years and the predictions roll by, the quote attributed to the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, who, when asked for his opinion regarding the historical consequences of the French Revolution, replied: “It’s too early to tell.”

  7. Pablo on November 15th, 2010 at 11:58


    There is such a thing as bounded uncertainty, in which a range of possibilities are deliniated and contingency planning undertaken to address them. It is not foolproof but it at least attempts to formulate a strategic approach to medium term future scenarios. At a minimum that helps avoid potential policy contradictions like the one I mention in the postscript.

    I was not so much emphasizing you or any other individuals as strategic planners as I was trying to point out, yet again, the lack of strategic planning, foresight and acumen that characterises current NZ foreign policy-making, something that is a combination of a lack of regard for expertise and an overly politicised approach to it on the part of the current government.

  8. Chris Trotter on November 15th, 2010 at 15:25

    Aha, I see. Sorry.

    Appropos, of the latest FTA with Russia and the ‘stans, I would say that what we see reflected in the decision is the consistent MFAT line of “Free Trade at any cost; at every cost; at all costs!”

    This has been the single, unwavering objective of the MFAT mandarins for more than 20 years. Both National and Labour politicians have embraced it, and so has the mainstream news media.

    To question the MFAT line is to place one’s diplomatic, political and media career at risk. Free Trade is seen by its devotees as an unalloyed good: something which brings nations together and maximises the chances of preserving global peace.

    Domestic opposition to the opening up of national markets is regarded as both irrelevant and illegitimate – as is any attempt by nation-states to exclude competitiors from strategically defined and constructed trading blocs.

    Free Trade is embraced by MFAT with a religious fervour impervious to criticism or contradiction. It is the Rosetta Stone for anyone trying to make sense of NZ foreign policy: the driving force behind all our serious diplomacy; and it is leading us straight to hell.

  9. Quentin on November 15th, 2010 at 16:00

    A valid point on domestic opposition and MFAT being impervious to criticism.

    In my mind its always about the money, and what else can NZ do? What are the implications of what is now taking place? (TPP/etc) It is my concern too, if all of this is leading us to hell in the near future.

  10. Pablo on November 15th, 2010 at 16:04

    Well said Chris.

    There is such a thing as free and fair trade, but this approach,as I mentioned in the previous post on Trading Down with reference to Jane Kelsey’s No Ordinary Deal, is far from it. Add to that a complete disregard for context, circumstance or the character of those on the other side of such “deals,” and you have a prescription for trouble down the road. Which is why ideological zealots of any stripe should never be in charge of foreign policy, much less a structural aspect so fundamental to a small, economically vulnerable state such as NZ.

  11. Quentin on November 15th, 2010 at 16:18

    It is interesting Pablo, that you believe that ideology should not be in charge of FP. I have always felt that being a representative of a nation ought to be a non-party aligned individual. There are certainly plenty of qualified, degree holding CVs that would fill that position in a NZ context, and who will be able to steer away from Party noise. It can be done I believe.

  12. Pablo on November 15th, 2010 at 16:45


    I have written about this subject in other fora but the bottom line for me is that, given the need for consistency, coherence and continuity in foreign relations, foreign policy-making should be more insulated from partisan politics (which are better directed at domestic policy that is more directly reflective of electorate sentiments). But in this case, as Chris mentioned and which I have mentioned in the 2010 Political Studies Quarterly article on post-Cold War New Zealand foreign policy, the foreign policy elite have exhibited a remarkable degree of consensus, consistency and continuity during the last 15-20 years when it comes to the issue of “free” trade. In fact, NZ foreign policy is relatively insulated from partisan quarrels, to the point of becoming an elite concern, something that I would hope will be reviewed by the some of the minority party Opposition in order to shed light on what exactly the thinking is behind this seeming quasi-religious belief in the benefits of unfettered trade without preconditions or significant after-entry regulations.

  13. Hugh on November 15th, 2010 at 20:14

    So Pablo it’d be fair to say that your problem with New Zealand’s free trade policy isn’t that it’s formulated by a technocratic group without reference to popular opinion, but that the technocratic group it’s formulated by isn’t really properly technocratic (eg doesn’t have the expertise required for technocracy’s advantages to outweigh its disadvantages).

  14. Pablo on November 15th, 2010 at 20:52

    No Hugh, it would be more fair to say that the problem is with an ideologically zealous yet ignorant foreign policy elite bureaucracy enamored with their travel and status perks as “negotiators” and and totally subserviant to the equally if not more venal politicians who nominally run foreign affairs in the present day.

    The 5th Labour government was bad and in its latter stages corrupted, but the current government truly demonstrates that we are run by a ship of fools (see Bruce Hamilton’s comment above to give a glimpse as to why that is so).

    The issue in a democracy, particularly one so structurally dependent as this one, is that the foreign policy technocrats have a feel for the pulse of the nation as well as a vision of what the future holds given different policy options. That way they can explain to the partisan government of the moment what the longer term implications of current decisions may be.

    Instead, the MFA-T minions kiss rear and fall in line with the ideological line of the likes of McCully, who is the epitome of the ignorant Kiwi bully mentality if there ever was one.

  15. Quentin on November 15th, 2010 at 21:47

    Thanks Pablo for your insight into MFAT- I’m learning.

  16. Pablo on November 16th, 2010 at 10:04


    One sad aspect of this is that there are actually plenty of competent people in MFAT who are dedicated, knowledgeable and pragmatic. The trouble is that they are subordinated to the ideologues and, as Chris mentioned above,cannot advance their careers by rocking the boat of received wisdom. This has gotten worse under the new Secretary of Foreign Affairs (who used to be a career diplomat), who is the former CEO of NZ Post and has no foreign affairs experience other than his dealings with international post issues. Given that, and the fact that he is a committed Nat, the upper level decision-making in foreign affairs has taken a decidedly narrow minded, short sighted and partisan tone.

  17. Quentin on November 16th, 2010 at 10:51

    Ouch! a Secretary who is not a FP man?- what’s the world coming to!!!

  18. Bruce Hamilton on November 16th, 2010 at 11:59

    For the curious, The Murry Horn led review of MFAT is available at …

    Basically, continue on, but with less money and be nicer to your minister.

  19. Hugh on November 16th, 2010 at 14:22

    Pablo, I don’t really think what you’re saying doesn’t fit with my summary of your argument. When you say MFAT are ignorant, ideologically rigid, incapable of forecasting, etc etc, you are essentially saying they lack the expertise that a technocratic regime uses as a source for its legitimacy.

    But I’m curious to know – how do you think New Zealand got into this state? Is the problem in MFAT’s human resources? Its recruiting practices? Or is the problem rooted in a failure in New Zealand’s universities to provide a sufficiently high calibre education?

    Similarly, you’ve frequently stated that you feel that elected politicians in New Zealand don’t have the expertise or even basic intelligent to manage foreign affairs. I presume you’re holding them to a lower bar than you hold the bureaucrats, but how can we ensure that smarter and more knowledgable people are elected? I think we can all agree that the public aren’t setting out to elect stupid or ignorant MPs, so how can we ensure they’re getting what they want?

  20. Quentin on November 16th, 2010 at 18:03


    Similarly, you’ve frequently stated that you feel that elected politicians in New Zealand don’t have the expertise or even basic intelligent to manage foreign affairs. I presume you’re holding them to a lower bar than you hold the bureaucrats, but how can we ensure that smarter and more knowledgable people are elected? I think we can all agree that the public aren’t setting out to elect stupid or ignorant MPs, so how can we ensure they’re getting what they want?


    You have basically nailed the coffin complete. Most candidates are not “wired” for foreign policy- only just to score cheap points on the domestic issues. I have seen this over and over. And sorry to say, but they are stupidly ignorant when it comes to the very large picture. However, David Lange was an exception. And surprise surprise- his foreign policy still stands!!! (No Nukes whatever!!)

  21. Hugh on November 16th, 2010 at 19:53

    That’s funny, I always felt Lange’s stance on nuclear ship visits was explicitly aimed at mollifying a public that was unhappy about other aspects of the Labour government’s agenda.

    But let’s say you’re right. Let’s say Lange’s policy is an example of the sort of policy New Zealand needs. What made Lange an able foreign policy formulator in a way the current leaders aren’t? He didn’t have any formal training in foreign politics. He didn’t speak any languages other than English. He had no experience with foreign countries other than Australia and England. In other words, he fails on pretty much all of the criteria Pablo is establishing. And yet…?

  22. Pablo on November 16th, 2010 at 22:09


    I think the problem resides in the overt politicisation of senior level positions in Foreign Affairs and Trade (and Immigration, the Police and NZDF). This began in the late 1990s, was accentuated by Labour and now is in full swing under National.

    To this syndrome can be added the subordination of the professional diplomatic corps to the dictates of the political masters, in which careers can be unmade by voicing dissenting or even alternative views of conventional wisdom (such as regarding the costs and benefits of trade and bilateral security agreements, taken individually as well as together, be in concert or juxtaposition).

    Thus expertise is downplayed in favour of partisan-oriented groupthink, with the result being a lack of foresight and medium term strategic planning that is holistic and comprehensive in nature.

  23. Phil Sage (sagenz) on November 18th, 2010 at 01:55,

    YOKOHAMA: The United States and eight other Pacific Rim nations aim to forge a free-trade pact before President Barack Obama hosts an APEC summit in Hawaii in a year, Chile’s president said Sunday.

    Leaders of the nine nations met for the first time Sunday at a summit in Japan to discuss the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact which would oblige members to scrap tariffs and other trade barriers.

    “So we’ll have rounds of negotiations, the first in New Zealand and the second in Chile,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of a wider summit of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

    I dont really have the time to discuss a most interesting post and thread other than to note that NZ Trade negotiators seem to be playing a leading role in bringing Pacific Free trade closer. That foreign policy is based on bipartisan NZ strength in the area. NZ can contribute much more as a principled leader than it can throwing its weight around in Security or other arena. Which is not to disagree with your post but simply to note that NZ is playing to its strengths.

  24. Phil Sage (sagenz) on November 18th, 2010 at 02:00

    That is the second time that your edit function has buggered up prospective editing. It does not allow you to edit at a point but keeps scrolling itself back to the top.
    If you could fix the obvious quote would be appreciated. My comment starts at “I dont really…

  25. Pablo on November 18th, 2010 at 09:32


    Not sure what is going on with the edit function but I will place a call to the technical services department and file a request for them to check into the matter.

  26. Stuart Mackey on November 30th, 2010 at 15:51

    This is a powerful point. There would seem to be an immaturity in decision-making about national security and foreign policy issues in this country. A sore reminder that we have a lot to learn -if we really want to move into the twenty-first century.

    Trouble is that we don’t seem to be learning, this was an issue during WW2!

  27. Stuart Mackey on November 30th, 2010 at 16:25

    But sometimes getting what one wishes for brings with it unanticipated trouble. By formally committing to a strategic partnership with the US, overlapped on National’s commitment to engaging closer military ties with Australia, NZ has in effect become a posse member for the global sheriff and its Antipodean deputy. The closer the level of military engagement between NZ and its larger military partners (quaintly called “interoperability” in the jargon), the more dependent it becomes on them for strategic guidance, material support, operational readiness and deployed force security. This makes it more likely, in spite of National’s assurances that NZ always retains the option to refuse a request, that NZ will wind up becoming involved in conflicts not of its choice but that of its strategic partners. That in turn raises the specter of NZ developing, by way of military coat-tailing, hostile relations with countries and cultures with which it historically has had no quarrel, which will spell the end of its “independent and autonomous” diplomatic posture.

    I couldn’t agree more. I would say that this is largely a result of NZ being determined to not being in a position to be either Independent or Autonomous, by either thought or deed.

    If we look at the steady degradation of the defense forces we can see how we have reduced our options to act independently. We are almost totally reliant upon other nations to to implement our defense policy beyond low level Pacific deployments. This therefore has an effect foreign policy in general, we have little or no leverage. It also means that we can be pressured at little or no cost to other nations.
    It is curious that we describe this national impotence and irrelevance with such terms as ‘independent foreign policy’.

    Where NZ is myopic or lacks ability in external relations and defense matters I feel is because our self inflicted circumstances force us to be so.
    We would have a greater and more realistic world view if we were to have or seek responsibility beyond what we have now. The last time we saw the glimmerings of this was during WW2, with the considerations over the use of our division in campaigns or theaters of war, and over the formation of the UN.

    But we had leverage back then, that we do not have now.

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