John Rides the Fence

Besides serving as a prop for some Letterman piss-taking, John Key’s visit to the the UN allows us to finally see the contours of National’s foreign policy. It can be captured in a neat phrase: firmly straddling the fence.

At the UN Mr. Key made all the right noises, speaking about fighting climate change, reducing carbon emissions, supporting multilateral approaches to conflict resolution and nation-building, promoting free trade and economic transparency. But his actions elsewhere speak volumes about what National really intends, at least in core areas of international relations. I shall break them down in order of importance to NZ.

On trade, NZ is gradually but decisively shifting to an Asian/Middle East orientation. National clearly sees that NZ’s competitive advantage lies in its traditional comparative advantage in primary good and derivative exports rather than value added manufacturing (except in niche industries such as weapons componentry). The bulk market for primary goods and their derivatives is in the East not the West, and even if certain NZ niche export industries such as wine prosper in the advanced liberal democracies, National’s future bet is with consumption growth in Asian and Middle Eastern autocracies. The recent championing of the growth in NZ-PRC trade since the 2008 bilateral FTA was signed demonstrates that National cares less about the after-entry effects of the FTAs (to say: labour market conditions, environmental standards, corporate responsibility to share holders and the general political climate in which export/import Kiwis make their money) and more about profit generated from trade volume growth.

On aid, NZ is privatizing the lot. The recent NZ$1 Million disaster relief assistance offered to Samoa and Tonga notwithstanding (already in the NZAID budget formulated by the Fifth Labour government, and directed to an afflicted area where the cost of recovery will run into the US$ 100 millions), the focus of NZ aid assistance under National, as Lew mentioned in a post a while back, is to promote private entrepeneurship and trade rather than poverty alleviation and social welfare. Moreover, the broader philosophical instinct betrayed by this approach is the National disbelief in nation-building efforts. Now it is clear that National believes that nation-building is a self-help issue: no matter if there are intractable pre-modern conflicts at play, or the  prospects for peace and security for millions are at stake, the answer is to promote capitalist entrepeneurship. In other words, the pursuit of profit trumps all humanitarian concerns when it comes to National’s approach to using taxpayer dollars to provide foreign aid. For National market approaches and trickle down effects are all that is needed to make the world right.

(I should note that this market fetish is now reaching deep into university planning schemes and in efforts to attract foreign fees paying students. As I have experienced directly, the impact on quality of instruction is negatively impacted by the rush to profit from ‘bums in seats.’)

Then, of course, there is national security. Here market logics may or may not apply. National has ramped up its commitment to play the role of Australia junior, which is to say a role in which it actively participates in the foreign military missions of its traditional partners. Afghanistan is the testing point for this re-orientation, because National has re-committed the NZSAS to front line combat duties while at the same time signaling its intention to withdraw the NZDF nation-building Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) contingent in Bayiman province. Something tells me that the costs of the NZSAS re-deployment will largely be borne by others (which makes it affordable),  whereas the PRT came mostly at NZ expense (whcih makes it unaffordable in spite of its excellent work). It appears that cost-cutting without principle abounds in these NACTIONAL daze. Given National’s downplaying of nation-building efforts in favour of market-driven logics, the Bayiman PRT is gone-burger (incidentally, the majority of the people who inhabit Bayiman are traditionally the slaves/servants of Pushtuns, so they are natural allies of UN/NATO reconstruction efforts).

So, on security issues National wants to curry favour with Australia, the US and the UK. On trade grounds it wants to curry favour with China, the UAE, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia–to mention just a few favoured trade partners. At the same time it appeases the UN with platitudes about environmental protection, non-proliferation and disarmament.

This is a three-sided foreign policy that is designed to be all things to all people divided into selected audiences. Although professional diplomats will work admirably to overcome the difficulties in reconciling these positions under the “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy stance that has obtained since 1990, one has to wonder–beyond the ridicule incurred by not even getting an invite to sit down and talk with the host on the American TV show but instead agreed to lip-read a bunch on American written deprecatory one-liners– if John Key’s loins not were chaffing under the strain of keeping a straight face while enunciating what is basically a  (N.8) wire-top foreign policy for the next three years.

PS–the NZ bid for a rotating Security Council seat is another case of splitting the difference. NZ will clearly be western on security matters but as a small state with an Asian trade orientation, will toe the multilateralist, non-interventionist “open border for trade” policy line, all the while getting to have a temporary say in how threats to the international community are perceived. Given its non-nuclear commitment, that means that NZ  will be duty-bound, among other things, to condemn the Iranian nuclear (weapons) programme and vote in favour of the sanctions/military resolutions occurring thereof. That places its trade orientation at odds with its security stance (since Iran has become a major export destination). Presumably MFAT has thought this one through and contingency planned accordingly.

14 thoughts on “John Rides the Fence

  1. If they’re using taxpayers money to “promote capitalist entrepeneurship” that would be interference in the market would it not and would not those receiving this aid be more political entrepreneurs than market entrepreneurs.

  2. The three sided policy probably refects who we are today – we are selfish (struggling to succeed economically), weak (multi-lateralism is a necessity to restrain others and realise equal status for ourselves) and vain (we like to see ourselves as a principled nation with a proud tradition of valued contribution).

    We made a committment to provide .7% GDP in foreign aid back in the 1970’s – we have made no effort since then to keep our word. We would rather blow the budget surpluses when they occur on tax cuts for ourselves (some would even cut public services to others for tax cuts for themselves) than behave honourably.

    Once a nation has lost its honour, it’s vanity about its reputation becomes increasingly delusional.

  3. Excellent piece of commentary.

    As an aside, it seemed strange for Groser this week to dump, without comment, any commitment to lower NZ tariffs until 2015.

    He came in for some stick from David Farrar in an NBR Column.

    No doubt this will be seized upon by our old mates in the EU and US when the next round of agriculture talks starts.

    We would expect some sort of explanation. Groser knows all this stuff backward, as he never hesitates to point out. So what is the story?

  4. Thanks for pointing that out Red. Puts another lie to those who claim National is a free market orientated party.

  5. It strikes me that National may have settled on a foreign policy orientation, but it has not yet developed a coherent foreign policy stance based upon a clear understanding of NZ’s international role. Although I have posted on this before (and above), it is worth repeating: on foreign policy National wants to be Labour light, leaning to the right. This means holding the line on a trade-first FP, shifting to an OZ-US supportive role in international security, and refocusing aid around trade and investment rather than humanitarian assistance (with a minor percentage of aid directed towards regional disaster relief).

    The real test will be on non-proliferation, environmental and peace-keeping issues. Although I cannot see NZ abandoning its minor leadership role within the NPT and in pushing for anti-land mine and other anti-weapons conventions, National has already signaled its lack of interest in military-led nation-building efforts with its decision to withdraw the Bayiman PRT. That makes East Timor and the Solomons interesting test cases, although in both the Ozzie commitment will ensure, now that National has stated its interest in developing closer military-to-military ties with OZ, that the NZDF commitment there will remain. It will be interesting to see what National does with other NZDF personnel currently assigned to observer roles in foreign peace-keeping missions (say, Lebanon), and whether it increases the defense budget in parallel with reducing the foreign aid budget in order to satisfy its commitment to strengthened defense ties with OZ and the US. A re-emphasis on military combat roles with these allies may prove problematic given that they do not subscribe to traditional NZ views on non-proliferation (which include among other things nuclear disarmament), to say nothing of putting NZDF personnel at greater risk the more they are committed to these roles.

    It will also be interesting to see if National backs away from Labour’s international environmental commitments in order to fall closer in line with those of OZ, the US and China (given the state of public opinion at home).

    As I mentioned in a January post, I do not have much confidence in the Ministers running Defense and Foreign Affairs (recall the post “Out of their Depth”), but remain confident than career diplomats and defense personnel will lobby from within for coherence and continuity rather than zealotry and radical change in NZ foreign affairs. If for no other reason that the NZ public are not demanding a radical break with the current foreign policy stance, National needs to carefully consider the counsel of its professional interlocutors within the foreign affairs and defense apparatuses. Its approach to NZAID indicates that so far it has not.

  6. I doubt that Labour or Greens will oppose National on retaining the remaining tariffs.

    There is little progress at the WTO and we are increasingly reliant on bi-lateral deals within the Asia-Pacific region. Here we are in weak negotiating position with low tariffs and lowering them further would mean we had nothing to confer by any trade treaty.

  7. Whatever happened to the outrage at Obama when he passed subsidies to US dairy farmers- supposedly putting our dairy industry in peril?
    Since it happened, I’ve heard nothing of it.
    If they really see free trade and pragmatism as the basis of our foreign policy, I hope they have made our displeasure clear.
    I hope that we are not about to become push-overs.

  8. Given its non-nuclear commitment, that means that NZ  will be duty-bound, among other things, to condemn the Iranian nuclear (weapons) programme and vote in favour of the sanctions/military resolutions occurring thereof. Yet not a single word of condemnation regarding the Israel nuclear programme, welcome to the 51st state.

  9. I don’t know how much damage is being done in foreign affairs circles by New Zealand’s current offer of a 0%+ emissions reductions target (yes, that is not a misprint), but I’m sure it isn’t improving our standing in world affairs. Other delegations are reportedly quite astounded.

    Maybe I’m romanticising the past, but this Government’s foreign policy orientation seems remarkably different from that of the McKinnon MFAT, which saw NZ engaged as an international citizen and largely neutral small power.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I can hardly see McCully leading the Commonwealth (but then I could hardly see Moore leading the WTO either…)

  10. George: A number of things come to mind. 1) His opinion of how National is doing on foreign policy; 2) what he sees NZ’s Security Council role to be (e.g. representative of small states, leader of NPT initiatives); 3) what is NZ larger international role.

    As for OZ, you might ask him about the perception that OZ wants to play deputy to the US sheriff, and about how its projected rearmament program (outlined in the recently released White Paper) can be construed as a sign of that intention and therefore a threat to regional security rather than a symbol of its move to middle power status.

  11. Thanks Pablo. I’m not sure what the format or audience turnout will be, but I’ll try and put in at least one of those if I get the chance, and let you know of the response.

  12. I’m very sorry I wasn’t able to make it last night, so no questions were asked.

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