What is (or should be) NZ’s international role?

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?  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?

8 thoughts on “What is (or should be) NZ’s international role?

  1. There was a recent feature in the local Listener magazine of a book by a New Zealand historian who postulates an Anglo-colonial connection to the last stages of the British empire and the emergence of American super power status. This probably sums up the ties which bind us to also acting where our foreign “leaders” have chosen to go.

    Our chauvinism is a small nations pride at being amongst the first world elite and being for the establishment of the UN and an international multi-lateralism (our idealism is in our pretension to being an advocate for the smaller nations and developing a fairer world for them). Here intital UN sanction and our “leaders” call is enough to have us involved in Afghanistan.

    We rationalised, we could support the action in Afghanistan but not that in Iraq. I suspect there is consensus this shows integrity. Loyal to common cause but not blindly so.

    I see little prospect of the current government (they reintroduced knighthoods after all) offering any challenge to our traditional identity of ourselves in the world. Nor of Labour offering any alternative foreign policy as a point of politcal difference.

    As to whether there is any “smart makeover” that is obviously there to be made, or any likely bureacratic/acedemic/bi-partisan/public consensus for any change now – in a word, no.

    That said your question is entirely relevant to this nations future. The answer will probably only emerge after an internal makeover of our sense of who we are (republic/constitution/treaty etc), this resulting in an ultimate questioning of our place in the world and how we choose to relate to it.

  2. 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..

    You could probably date the start of the isolationist streak to the Springbok tour followed by the Lange govt unilateral repudiation of the terms of a then nearly 70 year military aligment with the US. It is not built into the New Zealand psyche and I would argue has now ended with Clark and her generation being thrown from power.

    Key has a pure economic focus and I would not look for anything to change intellectually within this government. Personally I think change will come with the passing of the Queen and the move to a republic. That may jolt New Zealanders from their almost catatonic complacency with regard to foreign affairs. Even someone as well informed as Clark got it so badly wrong with her “benign strategic environment”. I cannot see any other way of changing the popular mindset and having ordinary people think about what being a New Zealander means.

    To me our foriegn policy stance would be a muscular follower of the Bush doctrine. And I use that to wind Pablo up as it his views coincide with that doctrine however much he may deny it ;^) . Support democracy and liberty whereever it may sprout by sending troops and civilian aid to the hotspots.

  3. I’m just wondering how on earth a tiny country like New Zealand that will never in even the most aggressive hawk’s wildest dreams have anywhere near the power projection capabilities or international clout necessary to implement the Bush doctrine can be expected to carry out a transformative project like that. If it’s beyond the capabilities of America it is most certainly beyond the capabilities of New Zealand.

    Effectively, a small country like New Zealand can only align itself in relation to great powers. That’s not to say that we can’t have an ‘independent’ foreign policy, only that any such independent foreign policy will necessarily only be independent in relation to what great powers are doing.

    Sorry, Phil, but if you desperately want to go around invading poor countries to bring the shining beacon of democracy to the benighted masses you’ll need the United States to lead the way. And if they don’t seem too keen on it anymore well then tough luck.

  4. For what it’s worth I think New Zealand foreign policy should be based on the mixture of principle and pragmatism that Pablo outlines. We’re a small trading economy that will never like I just said have the clout to become a major player in our own right. What’s important for us is access to export markets, and I think a trade-focused foreign policy is entirely appropriate, but this is not to say that we should cease to speak out on human rights and other issues in international forums.

  5. I’m just wondering how on earth a tiny country like New Zealand that will never in even the most aggressive hawk’s wildest dreams have anywhere near the power projection capabilities or international clout necessary to implement the Bush doctrine can be expected to carry out a transformative project like that. If it’s beyond the capabilities of America it is most certainly beyond the capabilities of New Zealand.

    Exactly right. The Bush Doctrine as Phil describes it is a fantasy.

    Rory Stewart, who has a quite remarkable biography…

    After a brief period as an officer in the British Army (the Black Watch), Stewart joined the Foreign Office. He served in the British Embassy in Indonesia from 1997 to 1999, as the British Representative to Montenegro in the wake of the Kosovo campaign. From 2000 to 2002 he walked across Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal, a journey of 6000 miles, during which time he stayed in five hundred different village houses. [1]. After the coalition invasion of Iraq, he was appointed Coalition Deputy Governor of Maysan and Senior Advisor in Dhi Qar, two provinces in southern Iraq. His responsibilities included holding elections, resolving tribal disputes and implementing development projects. He faced an incipient civil war and growing civil unrest from his base in CIMIC house in Al Amara and in May 2004, was in command of his compound in Nasiriyah when it was besieged by Sadrist militia. He was awarded an OBE by the British government (when he was 31) for his service in Iraq. That year, he also became a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University and completed his second book. In 2005, he founded an NGO in Afghanistan and moved to Kabul. He has traveled extensively, most prominently throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.

    …has a very interesting piece in the LRB:


    Far too many bits to quote, it’s his recommendations for Afghanistan, and his explanation of why so much of the way we think about it is not particularly helpful.

    A quote then, but really, read the whole thing.

    This is not a plan: it is a description of what we have not got. Our approach is short-term; it has struggled to develop Afghan capacity, resolve regional issues or overcome civilian-military divisions; it has struggled to respect Afghan sovereignty or local values; it has failed to implement international standards of democracy, government and human rights; and it has failed to set clear and realistic objectives with clear metrics of success. Why do we believe that describing what we do not have should constitute a plan on how to get it? (Similarly, we do not notice the tautology in claiming to ‘overcome corruption through transparent, predictable and accountable financial processes’.)
    In part, it is because the language is comfortingly opaque. We can expose Rawlinson’s blunt calculus of national interest by questioning the costs, the potential gains or the likelihood of success. But a bewildering range of different logical connections and identities can be concealed in a specialised language derived from development theory and overlaid with management consultancy. What is concealed is our underlying assumption that when we want to make other societies resemble our (often fantastical) ideas of our own society, we can. The language of modern policy does not help us to declare the limits to our power and capacity; to concede that we can do less than we pretend or that our enemies can do less than we pretend; to confess how little we know about a country like Afghanistan or how little we can predict about its future; or to acknowledge that we might be unwelcome or that our presence might be perceived as illegitimate or that it might make things worse.
    We claim to be engaged in a neutral, technocratic, universal project of ‘state-building’ but we don’t know exactly what that means. Those who see Afghanistan as reverting to the Taliban or becoming a traditional autocratic state are referring to situations that existed there in 1972 and 1994. But the international community’s ambition appears to be to create something that has not existed before. Obama calls it ‘a more capable and accountable Afghan government’. The US White Paper calls it ‘effective local governance’ and speaks of ‘legitimacy’. The US, the UK and their allies agreed unanimously at the Nato 60th anniversary summit in April to create ‘a stronger democratic state’ in Afghanistan. In the new UK strategy for Afghanistan, certain combinations of adjective and noun appear again and again in the 32 pages: separated by a few pages, you will find ‘legitimate, accountable state’, ‘legitimate and accountable government’, ‘effective and accountable state’ and ‘effective and accountable governance’. Gordon Brown says that ‘just as the Afghans need to take control of their own security, they need to build legitimate governance.’

  6. There are foreign policy instruments other than military adventurism.

    Other countries that take a firm neutral stance and avoid foreign military entanglements do not suffer for this in any practical sense. During the Cold War, most countries (inside and outside the power blocs) avoided military adventurism because of the danger of escalation. I’d argue the world was a safer place then than it is now.

    NZ should take a sensible stance in world forums and, importantly, reduce its dependence on sourcing commodities such as oil from despotic and unstable states. Militarily, we should concentrate on protecting our own territory and providing regional assistance if it is clearly required.

  7. Pingback: Kiwipolitico » Blog Archive » A Two Level Game In Afghanistan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *