News that the National government has in principle accepted the US request to deploy the NZSAS in Afghanistan once again raises questions as to whether NZ has a dog in that fight, and if so, why it got there. I am already on record in this forum and elsewhere as believing that the NZDF presence in Afghanistan is just on both moral and practical grounds. But many others disagree. That brings up the larger point, which is what, exactly, is (or should be) NZ’s international role? The paradigm shifts and dislocations that followed the Cold War stripped NZ of many of its traditional foreign policy referents, some of which were already being eroded prior to 1990 by the nuclear-free declaration and embrace of market-driven macroeconomic principles. As Lew mentioned in a previous post, trade now appears to be the basis for most contemporary NZ foreign policy, particularly under National governments. I have argued at various times that NZ foreign policy is a mixture of principle and pragmatism, but as of late I am not so sure that the former obtains in any significant measure.
Thus the questions begs: in a fluid international environment such as that which exists today, in which traditional alliance structures and security partnerships have been replaced or overlapped by new trade networks and the emergence of a raft of non-traditional security concerns and policy issues, what role does NZ play? Does it remain a committed multilateral institutionalist? Or is more of a junior partner to a variety of larger countries on a range of selected issues? Should it take the lead in pursuing matters of international principle like the pursuit of non-intervention, disarmanent, non-proliferation, climate change and human rights, or should it wise up and curry favour by getting with the bigger player’s projects, be they Chinese, American or Australian? Does realism or idealism drive NZ foreign policy, and if it is a mixture of the two perspectives, which should dominate given current and near future conditions?
There is a strong isolationist streak in NZ that spans the spectrum from Left to Right, one that sees nonintervention in foreign affairs to be the preferred standard when approaching the international community. In contrast, the trade liberalizers in both major parties and the foreign party bureaucracy speak of trade openings as the end-all, be-all of NZ growth and thus a reason for ongoing and deeper engagement with a multitude of partners. But what happened to principle in all of this, particularly the notion that as a good international citizen NZ has a duty and obligation to support with its active involvement actions that are sanctioned by the UN and other international agencies (the principle that I just happen to believe in when it comes to the foreign policy behaviour of small democratic states)? The ISAF mission in Afghanistan is just one such action, but there are a multitude of others that are seldom mentioned, much less discussed by the NZ political elite or public.
Given the hard economic times of the moment and the folly of recent great power interventions in international affairs, what exactly is or should be NZ’s response to recent international trends, and thus its role in the international environment? Should it lead, follow, be neutral, selective or withdraw when considering its potential range of international commitments? Â What should be the criteria for foreign engagement, and to what extent or degree? Should certain existing international commitments be dropped and new ones adopted? Should the traditional pro-Western foreign policy perspective shift to a more Eastern view?
I post this simply as a general reminder that the role of NZ as an international actor gets far too little play in the public discourse, yet is one that it absolutely crucial not only to its international reputation and stature, but also to its continued well-being as a small, vulnerable and dependent nation-state. The question must therefore be repeated: what role should that preferably be?