Has the NZDF gone Praetorian?

The hallmark of professional militaries is that they are non-partisan, subordinate themselves to elected civilian leadership in exchange for corporate autonomy and serve the nation as a commoweal organisation–that is, as an agent providing a universal public good (in this case national defense). The same is true for intelligence agencies, which are supposed to provide objective, factual and politically neutral analysis of threats, current trends and longer-term strategic developments. Conversely, praetorian militaries (named after the Roman praetorian guards that made and unmade emperors) are highly politicised, overtly partisan, permeated by sectarian or class interests and prone to manipulating threat assessments or broader strategic evaluations for corporate or political gain.

The reason I make these distinctions is because there appears to be a disturbing trend at play within the NZDF. Evident in the official misrepresentations and dissembling about the reasons for, and rules of engagement governing the SAS re-deployment to Afghanistan in 2009, the NZDF appears to be following the NZSIS approach to its charter. That is worrisome because the SIS has shown itself to be extremely politicised and prone to praetorian behaviour under the protection of national security legislation that prevents transparency in the reporting and investigation of its activities. The Zaoui case, the branding of Jane Kelsey as a security threat, the spying on peace and environmental activists engaged in  lawful dissent, the attempts to portray the Urewera 18 as something far more sinister than they are–all of this is symptomatic of the deep institutional malaise and anti-democratic propensities of the SIS. Hopes that the praetorian culture within the SIS would change with the appointment of Warren Tucker as director have been dashed as time goes by, and instead its powers of surveillance and scope of authority have been expanded under National-led reforms of the Terrorism Suppression Act and attendant security legislation.

That is why current developments within the NZDF are troubling. Unlike its intelligence counterpart, the NZDF has a reputation for professionalism and straight talk. That remains true for the bulk of the armed services, which for a small fighting force perform admirably within the budgetary and operational constraints incumbent upon them. But over the last decade or so the NZDF leadership–those of field and flag rank–have increasingly shown a propensity to dovetail their assessments with those of the government of the day. While consistency in approach between the military and civilian leadership is needed for security policy to be effective, this marrying of political interests has begun to look suspiciously like incipient “praetorianisation” of the NZDF. Rationales for foreign deployments, operational requirements, assessments of legal authority and liability, weapons procurement policy, justications for alliance commitments–in virtually every sphere of corporate interest the NZDF leadership appear to be taking their cue not from the objective requirements of the security environment in which NZ operates but from the political necessities of the government.

Although the Clark government manipulated the NZDF for its own purposes, this trend towards praetorianism has become amply evident with National in power, particularly in its reaffirming of security ties to the US (which is now confirmed by a “strategic partnership” codified in the Wellington Declaration of November 2010). This relationship certainly has benefits for the NZDF but it also has potential drawbacks in the measure that NZ is now tied to US (and Australian) strategic interests that are not necessarily those of NZ or which do not enjoy public support within it. There may be good reasons for this, but if so they have not been well enunciated and defended by the NZDF on autonomous grounds. Instead, without public consultation or debate, the government has agreed to the strategic partnership and the NZDF has followed the party line. The same is true for the Defence White Paper issued this past year, which rather than reflect a broad public consensus on the orientation and configuration of the NZDF given the security environment of the next decade, has arguably responded more to the internal logics of the defence establishment and the government (in other words, the public consultation process was ritualistic window-dressing on what amounted to the adoption of largely pre-determined decisions). None of this conforms to the military professional ideal in a democracy.

The politicisation of the NZDF leadership became acutely apparent in the response to Jon Stephenson’s article on the SAS in Afghanistan. The commander of the NZDF, General Rhys-Jones, parroted John Key’s slanderous denigration of the reporter and refused to consider the possibility that his predecessor, Sir Jerry Mateparae might have overlooked or whitewashed reports that the SAS were handing over prisoners to agencies involved in torture and violations of the Geneva Convention. There may be convincing reasons why this happened, but instead the NZDF closed ranks around Mateparae and Mr. Key, the former apparently out of corporate solidarity and the latter out of political obsequiousness. The trouble is that while the NZDF leadership and civilian policy-makers may find common defense in public stonewalling on matters of contentious security policy, it leaves troops in the field exposed to criminal accusations and undermines the professional ethics of the force as a whole.

That is not good. Although the NZDF is a long way off from being a coup-mongering praetorian military, the increased politicisation of its leadership is a troubling development. Obviously enough military leaders need to have good diplomatic skills and political sensitivities in order to ascend the ranks and interact with their civilian counterparts. There are certainly many–the majority–of NZDF officers who are full professionals. But for some in leadership roles to “spin” the military perspective to suit the political interests of the government of the day is a step too far, as it not only violates the responsibilities of the leadership to the troops that serve under them, but also the duty the military has to the nation as a whole as part of its commonweal orientation.

Perhaps the root of the problem of military politisation in NZ is more fundamental.  Because NZ does not have a constitution NZDF uniformed personnel do not swear an oath to a foundational charter. Instead, they swear a loyalty oath to the Government and the Crown (“Crown” presumably referring to the State but which could also be taken as reference to the Queen given NZ’s ongoing allegiance to the monarchy). Little wonder, then, that the corporate logic of the NZDF parallels that of the SIS, because at the end of the day and regardless of the rhetorical commitment to the nation as a whole, its sworn loyalty is less than universal. In other words, rather than a commonweal organisation at the service of the State and Nation, it is merely a tool of government, with all of the partisan implications that entails.

17 thoughts on “Has the NZDF gone Praetorian?

  1. New Zealand certainly does have a constitution! Is it contained in a single document? No. Is some of it contained in unwritten common law norms? Yes. The UK’s constitutional arrangements could be described the same way. For that matter, Canada has a patriated constitution, yet the military oath is made to the Queen. All 3 of those countries seem rather less that coup prone.

  2. Eddie C:

    Its news to me that NZ has a constitution, however piecemeal it may be. In fact, I have often heard people argue that NZ needs a written constitution as a foundational charter because the Treaty does not suffice, nor does mere common law and practice. Regardless of the merits, I shall leave that argument aside for the moment and focus on the other aspect of your critique.

    I specifically stated that I do not see the NZDF as “coup prone” so am not sure why you made that comment. What I am pointing out is the slippery slope of NZDF leadership politisation along lines already well-traveled by the SIS. As for the matter of loyalty oaths, the Canadians swear an oath to defend the Canadian nation as well as the Queen. The UK Armed Forces swear loyalty to the Queen as representative of the British nation, and not to any government. Yet the NZDF explicitly swears allegiance to “The Government” as well as the Crown.

    “The Goverment” can be interpreted to mean the ensemble of institutions and laws embodied by the State, which is the guarantor of the Nation, or it can be interpreted to mean the elected incumbents of decision-making positions at any given time. The former would be acceptable from a professional military standpoint but the latter is not. That is my point.

  3. While I agree that the treatment of journalists and the whitewashing of prisoner abuse are worrying signs of praetorianism as you’ve defined it – not a term I’m familiar with – I don’t think the Defense White Paper or the Strategic Partnership with the USA count. The NZDF didn’t write the Defense White Paper, the MoD did. Whatever the Paper’s flaws, the NZDF is not really responsible for them since it constitutionally cannot disagree.

    Ditto the US-NZ Strategic Partnership. The initiative for this came from the government of the day, and if the government of the day’s policy is that they want the NZDF to work with the US Military, the NZDF is required to go along with that. There’s no evidence that the NZDF has done anything above and beyond its duty in pushing for or implementing this arrangement.

    Of course it’s possible they have done more in each case, but you didn’t mention it, so for those of us who aren’t super-informed about security issues, it seems your charges are not substantiated.

    And I have to disagree that the lack of a constitution is the problem. The oath may have an emotional significance to NZDF staffers but I doubt it informs the way they do their duties. Its value is as a team-building exercise and to create professional pride, not to offer a guideline for responsibilities. And furthermore, the NZDF have always sworn the same oath – if you feel this is the cause, why have they only become “praetorian” in the last decade, when they’ve been swearing the same oath since WW2 (at least?)i

  4. Hugh:

    The point regarding the White Paper and the Strategic Partnership is that there is more than a hint that the NZDF supported both for political/partisan reasons rather than operational requirements or actual national defense concerns. Even if it had strong reasons for endorsing both, the NZDF was basically silent on what those reasons were. I take your point about the MoD and government leadership on both matters but am simply wondering whether the NZDF leadership have abdicated some of the corporate autonomy that is essential to the professional neutrality of the force as a commonweal organisation. Although I believe that the White Paper is less than it could have been and the process of producing was rigged from the onset, I tend to approve of the Partnership with some specific caveats as to the reasons for and ROEs under which NZDF troops will be deployed at the behest of the US and Australia. These were never enunciated.

    My issue with the oath is that while it may have been traditionally interpreted along the first lines I have suggested to Eddie C in my previous reply (i.e. to the State as guarantor of the Nation), it strikes me that in recent times it has come to mean more and more loyalty to the government of the day. That is the basis for my concern.

  5. If I recall correctly, our NZ constitution is mostly contained in the 1852 Constitution Act, plus sundry conventions and supplementary laws, as Eddie C said.


    Obviously the Parliamentary details have been tweaked since the 19C days of a male, property-owning voter base!

    Thanks for the post – the creeping praetorianism of the NZDF is concerning. They must obey the government of the day, but surely the correct method of standing up would be for regular publicly available NZDF reports on any major government initiatives, critiquing them from a military and strategic perspective?

  6. I believe the 1852 Constitution Act is blank – every clause has been superceded by later legislation.

    The 1986 Constitution Act is more significant.

  7. Pablo – Serious subject but it does tickle me that Wiki proves you wrong
    Armed forces Oath
    “I, [name], solemnly promise and swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to our Sovereign Lady the Queen, Her heirs and successors, and that I will faithfully serve in the New Zealand Naval Forces/the New Zealand Army/the Royal New Zealand Air Force [Delete the Services that are not appropriate], and that I will loyally observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty, Her heirs and successors, and of the officers set over me, until I shall be lawfully discharged. So help me God.”
    That is the oath I recall swearing when I joined the TF many years ago. I certainly do not recall swearing allegiance to the government.

  8. Thanks Phil:

    I deleted the “spam alert” comment once I found your initial comment in the filter. I am not sure why you keep getting flagged.

    As for the Wiki (ugh) quote. I do not see how it contradicts what I have said, and in any event my quotation of the oath comes from the NZDF website, in its mission statement.

  9. Pablo, I actually had a look around the NZDF website apropos of this article and couldn’t find the text of the oath. Could you indulge my laziness and post a link?

  10. Hugh.

    I can see the the most important point of the post has been lost on this side-track. Oh well.

    I did a very quick search and although I did not find the exact words to the oath here is the 1990 Defense Act No 28 (as of May 1, 2011) section 34 on the “Oath of allegiance” (section 34):


    Note that the Act refers tot he oath being sworn to the “Sovereign,” which as you will see in the wiki link posted below could well refer to the Governor-General or the Queen.

    Here is another interpretation:

    http://www.nzdf.mil.nz/public-downloads/public-consultation/veterans/results/submissions/guiding-principles.htm (look under the section titled “compulsion”)

    Since you are a civilian, you might find this interesting:

    http://army.mil.nz/downloads/pdf/hr/nzdfcivilianfactsheet.pdf (check out page 2, section titled “Loyalty”).

    And just for laughs, the wiki entry:


    From the latter I would say that we are in bigger trouble than I had thought!

  11. I don’t think this is a sidetrack, Pablo. The crux of your argument seems to be that if the NZDF oath was different the problems you identify wouldn’t be happening. So the actual substance of the oath seems quite germane.

    Generally oaths to the “sovereign” are not interpreted to mean adherence to the government-of-the-day. You’ve claimed that ‘the NZDF explicitly swears allegiance to “The Government” as well as the Crown’. Your use of the term explicitly and your use of quotations seems to imply quite strongly that the words “The Government” appear in the oath, but it seems that they don’t.

    PS: The “Guiding Principles” link doesn’t work.

  12. Hugh:

    This is a friggin’ side track since the post is about the politicisation of the NZDF leadership. My comment about the oath was to point to a possible fundamental–read: constitutional– issue. The bulk of the post is about recent developments.

    I suggest that you re-read the third link in which under the section titled “Loyalty” the NZDF specifically states that allegiance is to the “Government and the Crown.” Perhaps that means “Sovereign” to them.

  13. Pablo – I meant to follow up yesterday but did not get the chance. Taking the oath is to the sovereign not the government. That does not rebut but it does reduce the strength of evidence for your main point.
    I wanted to read the stephenson article but cannot find it online.if you have a scanned copy an email would be much appreciated. Having disclopsed my weakness of not having read the article I still disagree but from an entirely diffeerent premise. the sas are special forces. Their miSsion is not to take prisoners and they do not have the operational capacity
    The whole premise of the legitimacy of the sas taking responsibility for prisoners is at the heart of the argument. You sEek to judge the afghans by our liberal peaceful standrards rather than the situation on the ground. Troops are in Afghanistan. The afghan army has primacyt in its own country. You judge them by liberal standards. That is simply wrong. We expect our own soldiers to behave in accordance with the geneva convention. Equally we trust they will do what they reasonably can to prevent abuse. But to suggest the whole mission is illegitimate and the troops should come home as is suggested elsewhere is infantile. War is violent. Our contribution to the wider objective of stabilising afghanistan is far more important than whining about prisoner abuse and retreating to the south pacific to bury our head in the sand and pretend we are perfect and abuse does not exist.

  14. Comment made it.
    So moving on from the perspective that the oath is to the soveriegn and nzdf are simply responding to a manufactured and political agenda motivated attack I struggle to see why there is a case to answer
    To your more general point that defence chiefs are becoming more politicised. That is more a sign of increasing sophistication in following the lead of us and british military leadership.
    I think you are expressing doubt about the wisdom of re-establishing defence ties with us and aust and suggest it was done on national whim. If so that is simply fatuous. Margaret wilson and david lange did more to sabotage our strategic defence than anyone in the history of new zealand. National have simply continued a bipartisan effort to get us back to where we were
    It is a sign of Goff’s weakness as a leader and politician that he is making political attacks in this area. He deserves some of the credit for re-establishing ties but is pissing away any respect he earned.

  15. Pablo – Whomever wrote that civilian website is obviously suffering a delusion. It is an important point as you conclude the oath of allegiance may be part of the problem. To the extent that official website refers to the government that is prima facie evidence you are correct in asserting there is movement towards politicisation of the armed forces.

    Without wishing to disrespect you I can understand how the clarity of the American armed forces swearing allegiance to the constitution makes you uncomfortable with the vagueness of my oath of allegiance to the Crown. The British Armed forces have a similar oath.

    There is an interesting parallel with the arguments with Lew about what it means to be a New Zealander. I am reading Huntingtons book “Who are we” about the state of America.

    He argues that multiculturalism is inherently destabilising. People look to their historic identity rather than identifying themselves as assimilated Americans.

    That seems to me to be what Brash is arguing. I can see and agree with the point to an extent but celebrating our differences whilst recognising that together we are part of a greater whole seems to me a better balance.

    The relevance to this thread is the underlying premise about what it means to be a New Zealander and whether NZDF staff behaviour and NZDF culture is consistent with that.

    I think you correctly disparage NZSIS but believe your opinion of NZDF is wrong in its premise as well as being wrong on the evidence.

  16. The point I should add to the above for clarity is the very important distinction between swearing allegiance to the now apolitical queen rather than to the government. Like American (or Honduran) soldiers I would not feel treasonous fighting against a government that went against the spirit of our constitution. Suspending our democracy on some spurious security basis is the only thing I can see where that would be justified.

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