The lunatics have taken over the asylum. Not only has National adopted an incoherent foreign policy in which it attempts to straddle the fence between China and the US by tying its trade fortunes to the former and its security fortunes to the latter (something that it thinks is hedging but which is untenable given the looming strategic conflict between the two great powers). It has now decided that it can dispense with 305 MFAT employees, including diplomatic staff assigned abroad (as it closes embassies and consulates). This, at a time when global interdependence is increasing and the range of international relations is getting more rather than less complex.
Diplomacy and its support infrastructure are good value for money because the service it provides helps NZ’s position in the world. For the cost of diplomatic and home office salaries, travel, conferencing, housing (abroad) and foreign aid programs, NZ can avoid military entanglements (the costs of which are exponentially higher than diplomatic chit chat), engage in negotiations on matters of national interest (for example, non-proliferation, arms control and climate change), and generally steer a safe course in the turbulent seas of the post 9-11 world. To do so requires personnel with varied skill sets, so reducing the complement of personnel dedicated to diplomatic functions reduces NZ’s capacity to engage its foreign interlocutors on a broad range of issues. Numbers do matter here.
The market zealots of the National razor gang want to cut all perceived public sector fat regardless of consequence. This is like choosing a skinny marathoner to run an Antarctic ice race instead of a distance runner with a sturdier (read thicker) constitution: the short term look may seem impressive, but once the choice is placed into real context it is bound to suffer, likely fail and in the end be more costly to maintain. We have already seen the domestic consequences of such logics. Now we will see them in our international affairs.
Add to this the privatization of NZAID programs in which fostering business opportunities is given priority over human developmental assistance, and what you have is foreign policy debacles in the making.
Of course, the National government may be doing this because it already knows that it is going to lose the next election and does not care if it saddles Labour (or more likely a successor Labour/Green government) with the costs of the diplomatic re-build after McCully and co. have reduced NZ’s diplomatic footprint to that of a child in the sand. But that, in a phrase, captures what National is all about when it comes to foreign policy: a child playing an adult’s game without regard to long-term consequence.
Eventual ratification of the much hyped Trans-Pacific Partnership, should it occur, will not save National from its folly and will in fact exacerbate the tensions between the Chinese and the US. That in turn will have very negative consequences for NZ since it is increasingly dependent on China for trade and on the US/OZ for security. This, with less people employing the skills to smooth over the differences between the two contradictory positions.
Couple the above with the erosion of morale and skill sets within the NZDF as a result of similar cost-cutting measures, and what is left is a shell of NZ’s former international presence. Sometimes the bottom line is not measured in monetary terms but in terms of competence, reputation and committed presence. This is particularly true for international relations, where the belief that NZ punches above its weight in international affairs is being put paid to by National’s incompetence and dogmatism.
In my opinion National has put ideological partisanship ahead of the national interest. If the proposed cuts are more than a bargaining chip, then the only questions left are who will profit from National’s increased privatization and out-sourcing of the country’s international relations and who will pay the price? I suggest that in response to the latter, all Kiwis will pay a price for this decision, including the private interests who may short term profit from National’s grossly myopic and self-interested approach to foreign affairs staffing. Let us remember: most developed states consider foreign policy making and implementation to be an essential and universal function of government not susceptible to narrow partisan logics, precisely because of the long-term common need for diplomatic continuity in a difficult world.