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?
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.
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.
God, is there anything you Republicans think ‘getting rid of the Queen’ won’t do?
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.
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.
Exactly right. The Bush Doctrine as Phil describes it is a fantasy.
Rory Stewart, who has a quite remarkable biography…
…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.
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.
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