Is a Blue-Green Foreign Policy Possible?

Discussion of potential coalitions stemming from the upcoming general election has largely avoided the question of foreign policy. Although the differences between Labour and National are more around the edges than at the core of New Zealand’s approach to international relations, there are some areas of significant difference, to which can be added the perspectives of the minor parties that might serve as coalition partners in a future government.

New Zealand First, Mana and the Maori Party have very little by way of foreign policy platforms, with the former adopting a mix of economic nationalism, anti-immigrant and neo-isolationist perspectives on New Zealand’s position in the world. Mana and the Maori Party’s focus on the defense of indigenous rights, with Mana  adopting a broad anti-imperialist agenda while the Maori Party seeks preferential benefits from foreign trade and investment. As a junior partner in the current National government, the Maori Party secured New Zealand ratification of the 2010 United Nations Defense of Indigenous Rights Convention (which had been opposed by the 5th Labour government), but has been silent on pretty much every other foreign policy issue.   For their part, personality-driven minor parties like United Future have no discernible foreign policy agenda.

Since the mid 1990s there has been a broad consensus on the part of the foreign policy elite with regard to New Zealand’s international relations. Labour and National agree on the trade-oriented and market nature of the New Zealand economy, as well as its general direction. They also agree on its non-nuclear position and support for multilateral resolution of international disputes. On security matters National has, as of the Wellington Declaration of November 2010, made New Zealand a first-tier security partner of the US, in both its military as well as intelligence-sharing dimensions.  Labour started the process of rapprochement with the US on security matters after  9/11, taking advantage of the fact that the US was desperate to enlist international support for its “War on Terror.” Sometimes beggars can be choosy, and the 5th Labour government took advantage of the window of opportunity presented by 9/11 to cultivate a security relationship with the US that had been dormant, apart from core intelligence sharing, since the 1980s. National has followed up by codifying the restored US-NZ security relationship in the Wellington Declaration. This includes closer Australian-New Zealand security cooperation under a US-centric  strategic perspective.

The trouble for Labour and National is that both also want to expand into non-traditional, non-Western markets, particularly in China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The minor contradiction is that all of these regions have current and potential trading partners that are authoritarian and habitual human rights violators, thereby giving lie to the stated New Zealand foreign policy goal of being a staunch defender of universal human rights. The bigger contradiction is that the major party approach to international security matters places Aotearoa on the horns of a diplomatic dilemma: its economic fortunes are increasingly tied to regions in which the US strategic perspective sees more rivals than partners. Again, China-US relations are instructive in that regard. By explicitly uncoupling security from trade with the Wellington Declaration, National seeks to split the diplomatic difference between larger strategic rivals, although this may result in a Melian dilemma rather than a bridge between new and traditional overseas partners.

Labour still exercises some discretion around the margins of the pro-US strategic alignment, such as stating that it will withdraw the SAS from Afghanistan rather than renew its deployment in March 2012 even if requested to do so by the US.  It also prefers a more flexible and UN-focused approach to international issues, whereas National is obsequious in its cultivation of US patronage. But on most core matters of foreign policy, National and Labour are reading off the same page.

This is where the potential coalition mix gets interesting. The most interesting possibility is that of a Blue-Green coalition between National and the Green Party. The Greens are poised to receive their largest vote ever. Although they would seem to be more natural allies of Labour when it comes to coalition politics, the Greens were burned by the Clark government on several policy matters such as the Zaoui Case, the Free Trade Agreement with China (and the content of trade agreements in general), deployment of NZDF troops abroad, security and intelligence legislation, human rights and environmental defense, animal rights and a host of other foreign policy issues. However, things may change now that Keith Locke is no longer the foreign policy and defense spokesperson for the Greens, and as I have said before, there is room for neo-realism in the Green foreign policy agenda.

Even so, National’s signing of the Wellington Declaration and extension of state powers of surveillance, detection, detention and control under the banner of countering terrorism is anathema to core Green principles.  To be part of a government that openly overlaps its security with those of the US (to include the possibility of entering wars of choice instigated by the US rather than limiting engagement in war to essential national defense or international peace-keeping), and which curtails basic civil rights in a liberal democratic setting where no serious security threat exists, cannot sit well with the Green rank and file. Selling out these principles to be part of a National-led government may well be a step too far even for the more pragmatic, second-generation leadership that controls the party (which has seen most of the original “red” cadre of which Keith Locke was part leave politics).

But it may not be. If the Greens can extract concessions around the margins of the the foreign policy agenda, say by pushing National to take a firmer stance on whaling or foreign fishery vessel operations or reaffirming New Zealand’s commitment to multilateralism, non-proliferation and peacekeeping, then perhaps its membership and the public at large will be mollified so that the coalition can be sustained. The Greens offer the perfect place to recruit a Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control. The Greens might be able to temper some of National’s trade discussions with environmental and labour-related concerns. Pigs can fly.

A Blue-Green coalition will require the Greens to compromise their foreign policy principles as the price for access to decision-making authority. A confidence and supply agreement might finesse the conundrum, but it could remain as a point of division that could well weaken the government down the road. In fact, Green access to, much less influence in, the foreign policy apparatus (to include MFAT, MOD and the various intelligence agencies involved), could well be a step too far for National and the bureaucracies involved, so the Blue-Green coalition possibility is limited on both sides.

For these reasons a Blue-Green coalition seems unlikely unless the Greens undergo a pro-market, realpolitik transformation or divorce their domestic policy agenda from their foreign policy concerns in order to focus exclusively on the former. As for the rest of the small parties, they will have little or no influence on foreign policy regardless of their electoral fortunes.


6 thoughts on “Is a Blue-Green Foreign Policy Possible?

  1. Pablo,
    my comment is more about the melian dilemma piece you wrote on scoop, but theres no comments there so Im doing it here. Do you think NZ’s foreign policy folks are in agreement on this strategy, or do you think they are split between pro trade/pro china folks in MFAT, and pro US folks in the NZ military, and both are pulling in opposite directions, leaving us stuck in the middle?

  2. My take on Green coalitions has always been that the Greens have core policies and fringe policies, and that they will happily compromise on the fringe policies. Their foreign policy preferences fall entirely within the “fringe” part.

    The problem is that they have not adequately coached their voters to expect concessions on the “fringe” or even explained what’s fringe and what isn’t. In fact I’d go so far as to say that a lot of Green voters don’t recognise that there is such a distinction and believe that every policy the Greens have announced is held with equal fervor by the party. So I’d expect to see them go through basically the same process that the Alliance and Maori Party did – their supporters will be disappointed at the trade offs they make.

    Admittedly very few parties do this well.

  3. Oh and also, Pablo, in June last year, you wrote:

    “Over the last year it has become apparent that National has de-emphasised, if not abandoned the idealist and constructivist strands of post Cold War foreign policy, and has replaced true realism with what can only be characterised as a pandering approach to international affairs.”

    This seems to contradict your second paragraph.

    Changed your mind?

  4. Mark:

    I think that there are broad divisions along the lines you describe, but that within each bureaucracy there are divisions between multilateralists and bilateralists. MFAT is more powerful that MoD, and tends to have more of a multilateral focus, but National has pushed hard for fully restored bilateral security relations with the US and Australia. MoD was happy to oblige even though it still has a long-term commitment to UN-led peacekeeping operations and South Pacific regional security (both classified as involving multilateral “operations other than war”). Right now the bureacratic tensions between the competing foreign policy viewpoints are finely balanced, but that may change because there is no long-term strategic perspective to guide foreign policy decision-making down the road. Hence we may see more back and forth between the two perspectives as different foreign policy factions are favoured by future governments in the absence of a more integrated approach that incorporates both viewpoints. Even so, the broad consensus on foreign policy between the major parties will remain, and that will continue to underscore the primacy of trade-oriented perspectives.

    Hugh: I see no contradiction between what I have written here and what I have written previously. Labour has tended to be more constructivist and multilateral in its foreign policy approach, while National tended to be more realist and bilaterally-inclined. However, as of late National has foresaken realism for straight-out currying of US favour in parallel with its Asian-focused trade strategy. That position may well prove untenable over the long-term given the competing geostrategic interests involved.

  5. Excellent and interesting article.

    My only criticism is your rather trite analysis of New Zealand First.

    First of all, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has been extensively involved in New Zealand’s overseas affairs since the late 1990’s when he was Deputy Prime Minister.

    Since the time he represented New Zealand at the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, he has been one of the most well-known and highly regarded New Zealand statesmen particularly in South- & North-East Asia. If you actually read and listen to his speeches, he nearly always mentions how much he admires countries like Singapore, Taiwan and other Asian nations. The fact that this is reciprocated is not bothered to be reported, but is widely known within MFAT and amongst senior East Asian diplomats, including the MFA in Singapore.

    Secondly, if you look at the reality of New Zealand First’s impact on foreign policy and trade policy in particular during their term as Labour’s Confidence and Supply partner, I’d say that they are very firmly oriented toward closer relations with the Pacific. New Zealand First had a big impact on NZAID’s refocusing on the Pacific too. Furhtermore, the appointment of a former New Zealand First MP Brian Donnelly as New Zealand’s High Commissioner to the Cook Islands (tragically cut short by his illness), Winston Peters receiving a chiefly title from Samoa and the fact that a former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands stood for the party in the 1999 elections to me shows how engaged the party is foreign policy toward the Pacific Islands.

    Finally, New Zealand First is not anti-immigrant. It may have taken strong stances against immigration policy during the 90’s and early 00’s, but in the same way as National and Labour have totally changed their ideological positions over the same period multiple times, it is much the same with NZF. When you look at the pary’s candidates this election, which include Indian, Pasifika and Chinese immigrants to New Zealand, it’s a challenge to buy into the myth that NZF is a racist, or even xenophobic, party.

  6. The Greens seem to be pretty much on the same political pathway here as in Germany where they gradually moved to the right until they reached a point they could comfortably work with conservatives.
    Green party membership initially was about 10% left, 10% right, and 80% confused middle class people who just want everything to be nice.
    The left in the party has shrunk considerably and the right has grown by about the same amount and are now in ascendancy. The percentage who are politically confused and actually buy the right wing ‘neither left nor right but ahead’ arguments remains high so it is almost ineveitable the party will become similar to the German Greens which is now a neo liberal environmental party.

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