Foreign Policy after the Election.

Lost amid the distractions of royal visits, Mananet Party circus side-shows and assorted other peripheral issues has been the subject of NZ foreign policy after the September 2014 election. The topic is worth considering beyond the attention it has received so far. In this post I outline some (far from all) of the major areas of convergence and difference in the event a National-led or a Labour-Green coalition wins.

If National wins it will deepen its current two-pronged approach: it will continue with its trade obsession to the detriment of other foreign policy areas such as disarmament, non-proliferation and human rights, and it will strive to deepen its security ties with the US and its close allies, Australia in particular. The trade-for-trade’s sake foreign policy approach will see National return to the bilateral negotiating tale with Russia regardless of what it does in Ukraine or other Russian buffer states, and will see it attempt to garner even a piecemeal or reduced TPP agreement in the face of what are growing obstacles to its ratification (especially US domestic political resistance that sees TPP as a drain on American jobs, but also sovereignty protection concerns in areas such as copyrights, patents and strategic industries in places like Chile, Japan and Singapore). NZ will continue to try and expand its trade relationships with Middle Eastern states in spite of their largely despotic nature, and it will continue to push commodity specialization, niche value-added manufacturing and education provision as areas of competitive advantage.

On a security dimension NZ will continue its return to front-tier, first line military ally status with the US and Australia, and will deepen its intelligence ties within the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network as well as with other pro- US partners and in the field of human intelligence. This will occur whether or not Edward Snowden reveals the full extent of NZ espionage on behalf of 5 Eyes in the months leading up to the election, but the government will find itself under scrutiny and hard pressed to defend the behaviour of the NZ intelligence community in that event. Closer military ties with the US brings with it the risk of involvement in American-led conflicts, but the National approach, as it is with the looming Snowden revelations, is to “wait and see” and deal with the issues as they arise (presumably in more than a crisis management way).

Truth is, under National NZ will become another US security minion. One has to wonder how the Chinese, Indians, Russians and assorted Middle Eastern trading partners feel about that, especially if it is revealed that NZ spies on them on behalf of 5 Eyes..

National will conduct its foreign policy unimpeded by its potential coalition partners. United Future and the Maori Party have zero interest in foreign affairs other than to reaffirm whatever status quo they are part of, and ACT, should it survive, is a National mini-me when it comes to the subject. Winston First will not rock the boat on foreign policy issues so long as a few baubles are thrown its way.

A Green-Labour government will have a slightly different approach, but not one that fundamentally rejects the basic premises of National’s line. The Greens have already begun to soften their stance regarding TPP and trade relations, emphasising their interest in “fair” trade and after-entry protections and guarantees. Labour, which otherwise would have likely continued the thrust of National’s trade strategy, will back away from some of the more foreign-friendly aspects of trade negotiations in order to mollify the Greens, and if Winston First is part of that coalition it may place some restrictions on foreign ownership and investment rights on NZ soil.

Along with the softening of single-minded trade zealotry, a Labour-Green government will attempt to reemphasize NZ’s independent and autonomous diplomatic stance (which has now been fundamentally compromised by the nature of National’s two-pronged approach). This will include attempting to rebuild its reputation and expertise in the fields hollowed out by National’s razoring of the diplomatic corps, although it will be very hard to replace the lost expertise and experience in fields such as chemical and nuclear weapons control, multinational humanitarian aid provision and environmental protection. To do so will require money, training and recruitment, so the time lag and costs of getting back up to speed in those areas are considerable.

With regards to security, the Greens and Labour are in a dilemma. The Greens want to review the entire NZ intelligence community with an eye towards promoting greater oversight and transparency in its operations. That includes a possible repeal of the recently passed GCSB Act and, if some of its members are to be believed, a reconsideration of NZ participation in 5 Eyes. For all its opportunistic protestations about the Dotcom case and GCSB Act, Labour in unlikely to want to see major changes in NZ’s espionage agencies or its relationship with its intelligence partners. It is therefore likely that Labour will agree (as it has said) to a review of the NZ intelligence community without committing itself to adopting any recommendations that may come out of that review. It may also agree to a compromise by which recommendations for greater intelligence agency oversight and accountability are accepted as necessary and overdue in light of recent revelations about the scope and extent of NZ domestic espionage as well as its foreign intelligence operations (all of which will become much more of a public issue if Snowden reveals heretofore denied or unexpected espionage by NZ intelligence agencies).

The same is true for NZ’s burgeoning military alliance with the US. Labour will not want to entirely undo the re-established bilateral military-to-military relations, especially in the fields of humanitarian assistance, search and rescue and perhaps even de-mining, peace-keeping and peace-enforcement operations. The Greens, however, will object to continuing the bilateral military “deepening” project and will oppose NZDF participation in US-led wars (especially those of of choice rather than necessity). The Greens will push to further reduce military expenditures as percentage of GDP (which is currently around 1.1 percent) and will seek to restrict weapons purchases and upgrades as much as possible. That will put it as loggerheads with Labour, which will see the necessity of maintaining a small but effective fighting force for both regional as well as extra-regional deployments, something that in turn will require modernization of the force component as well as good working ties with military allies (which is maintained via joint exercises and cross-national training events).

What that means in practice is that the Greens will not be given ministerial portfolios connected to foreign affairs or security, although they will be assuaged by concessions granted by Labour in other policy areas, to include (however token or cosmetic) intelligence reform.

Minor parties that might be part of the coalition will have little influence on the Labour-Green foreign policy debate. Mana will bark the usual anti-imperialist line but will be ignored by Labour and the Green leadership. Winston First will extract a pound of flesh with regard to the influence of non-Western interests on the NZ economy and NZ’s security commitments but otherwise will toe the Labour foreign policy line. The Maori Party will be irrelevant except where there is international  diplomatic interest in indigenous affairs.

The vote on NZ’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council will not be greatly influenced by the election (the UN vote occurs in October). NZ’s chances have risen as of late in the measure that Turkey’s has fallen thanks to the increasingly autocratic and erratic rule of the Erdogan government. Spain, the other rival for the “Europe and other” non-permanent UNSC seat (yes, NZ is not part of Oceania when it comes to such voting), has been tarnished by its economic woes, so NZ’s relative economic and political stability have bolstered its chances by default. Even so, a Labour-Green government will likely be more appealing to the majority of the UN membership given National’s obsequious genuflection to Great Powers on both trade and security.

In sum, foreign policy may be a non-issue in the run up to the elections but that does not mean that it does not matter. Party activists and the public at large would do well to contemplate which direction they would like to see NZ steer towards in its foreign relations, and what international role they envision it should properly play. Otherwise it becomes just another elite game uninformed by the wishes of the majority, which means that when it comes to engaging the world it will be exclusively elite logics that inform the way NZ does so.


20 thoughts on “Foreign Policy after the Election.

  1. Pablo – You are far too despondent about NZ foriegn policy. about Key in China

    “And an even better observation A diplomat made an interesting observation to me a few weeks ago. He said that the national leader who has spent the most time in the last year with the President of the United States would be the NZ Prime Minister. He also said that the national leader who has spent the most time with the President of China would be the NZ Prime Minister. Now it is pretty extraordinary for any NZ PM to be the leader either super-power President has spent the most time with. “

    The reality is that tiny NZ is a trusted broker. It is too small for its “national interest” to be of real concern for any of the super powers but it is punching well above its weight in moving forward with trade ties

  2. Phil:

    I am not convinced by those anecdotal claims. Even if true, should it not tell you something that Key has so much time to spend abroad, including on holiday, that he can meet with Obama a couple of times? As for the meetings with the Chinese PM (again, just a couple), that is the result of the Fonterra fiasco and Key feeling that he had to go hat in hand to apologize to the Chinese well before a regularly scheduled state visit.

    Any other meetings with these leaders occurred on the sidelines of regularly scheduled multilateral gatherings such as the annual APEC conferences. So the significance of his meetings with Xi and Obama is being overplayed, as usual, by National spin meisters. As for the diplomat who thought Key is being given special access–it goes to show how far the quality of the NZ diplomatic corps has fallen in recent years.

    The real nature of Key’s approach to world leaders is mentioned in the post: obsequious genuflection. Plus, Key;s interpersonal interactions with world leaders, special or not, is not synonymous with NZ’s international status.

    I remain of the opinion that due to National’s two pronged approach NZ no longer holds the diplomatic status of honest broker.

  3. Key is right to genuflect to both the US and China – New Zealand is too small and inconsequential to have anything of substance to offer true superpowers, so his taking a deferential stance is merely a recognition of the reality of New Zealand’s status as a minnow in international waters, a small distant nation of no consequence. The sooner NZ’s so-called “intellectual elite” wakes up to the fact of their nation’s ineffectual status on the international stage, the better.

  4. LA:

    I beg to disagree. Being obsequious does not bring respect. NZ built a strong reputation as an honest broker by maintaining an independent and autonomous foreign policy stance from 1985-2001. It “punched above its weight” within the NPT regime because of its non-nuclear stance, and had considerable weight in other non-proliferation and environmental forums and for a while on human rights issues. All of that is pretty much gone ow.

    Plus, kissing rear on both the Chinese and the US is not a long-term strategy given the geostrategic dynamics at play.

  5. Genuflection and deference is the only option given NZ’s geostrategic status and lack of capacity for independent kinetic operations. If Key were to be assertive with either Obama or Xi then he would be laughed out of the office, and quite rightly too.

  6. Pablo – Google Chinese president Xi private dinner. You will see very few instances. No doubt Key was delighted when invited but China was under no obligation to do so. It could have been purely a formal kowtow meeting after Fonterra but it was not. There is a special relationship between China and New Zealand. Starting with Rewi Alley and continuing for decades. I do not believe Key can take full credit but equally you cannot write off his contribution. Helen Clark and Tim Groser did get the first FTA with China in 2008. The point is that there is a long term pattern. You are being churlish by playing it down or ignoring it. The Key Obama relationship is coincidence, they started around the same time and have a common association with Hawaii. I dont expect that would get us any favours. NZ has been taking the lead on the TPP and negotiating at equal level with US. That means something. Also bear in mind it remains part of Five Eyes. China knows all about Snowden’s revelations but they still provide massive face to Key and NZ through a private dinner.

    I would be very surprised if both US and China did not value the NZ perspective on the US – China relationship. There are things that can be said on a golf course or at a private dinner that will not be said by the smartest and best informed politicians, analysts or diplomats on either side.

    I don’t see that the UN Security Council place counts for much at this point. NZ has negligible military power but a great deal of soft moral power.

    I would suggest that both the NZ population and their political leadership share the same vision for NZ. Continuing to develop as a leader in trade liberalisation, trusted as an honest broker by all parties.

  7. Phil, you’d be disappointed by how few Chinese people remember Rewi Alley, let alone know anything about what he did. Also, he is only one of quite a large number of “foreign friends” – including some Japanese – who helped China generally and more specifically the Chinese Communist Party through the 1920s to 1950s and beyond.

    The FTA and related issues, such as “first developed nation to recognise China as a market economy” are important, yes.

    NZ is important to China because something like 80% of China’s dairy imports come from NZ, the greater part of that infant formula. This has massive implications for social stability – only the middle and upper classes, i.e. the classes that have real political clout, can afford imported formula for their kids, and if it turns out that Fonterra can’t be trusted to make safe formula, then there will be hell to pay. For NZ, it’ll be simply a massive loss of income. For China…. who can tell. But food safety is one of several major issues relevant to the preservation of social stability and CCP rule. China is looking to diversify is sources of imported dairy, as well as clean up the domestic industry, and NZ’s competitors have been actively using the opportunities Fonterra, through its incompetence, handed to them on a silver platter to boost their market share. I’d be willing to bet that Xi took Key aside to politely but firmly explain that if NZ wants to keep its position in the China dairy trade, NZ better bloody lift its game.

    I very much doubt either the US or China has much interest in the NZ view of their relationship. Both countries have ample talent devoted to such things, whereas the NZ government seems to have gone around culling that talent. It’s frustrating, because in my limited dealings with them, I’ve been left really seriously impressed with MFAT. I do think they both have an interest in NZ and international relations in the Pacific. It may seem like a bunch of far-flung, insignificant little islands, but there’s stuff there, both concrete and abstract, both want.


    “There are things that can be said on a golf course or at a private dinner that will not be said by the smartest and best informed politicians, analysts or diplomats on either side.”

    Trouble is, it’s John Key we’re talking about. And although I’d agree the Left loves to underestimate him, I think the Right is just as good at overestimating him.

    Pablo, is there really nobody paying attention to NZ’s role in the Pacific, or China’s manoeuverings in Pacific relations?

  8. Chris – Interesting response. I really doubt many people specifically remember Rewi Alley but my point is that it is part of a continuum. Would you prefer a British folk memory of gunboats and opium?

    NZ has less than 1% of China infant formula market, even allowing for retail markup it is small. Exports of NZ$200m in a $25bn China market

    Equally formula is less than 10% of Dairy exports to China of $2.5bn. Important to Fonterra as an expanding free market but not really important enough to attract the attention of Chinese leadership yet.

    What really gobsmacked me is the following “Danone, through its Karicare brand, commands a 64 per cent share of the New Zealand trade.” The implications of that are astounding. Fonterra sold the Anchor brand in the UK and a french brand has the NZ market sewn up. Incomprehensible.

    It is good that Key continues to be misunderestimated by the left. The voters seem to like him.

    On a completely different subject this article is a really interesting commentary on the Germany Russia relationship. Germans prefer the Russian to the anglo saxon soul. It has very serious implications for Europe.
    “In recent weeks, an intense and polemical debate has been waged between those tending to sympathize with Russia and those championing a harder line against Moscow. The positions have been extreme, with one controversy breaking out after the other. The louder the voices on the one side are in condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the louder those become in arguing for a deeper understanding of a humbled and embattled Russia; as the number of voices pillorying Russia for violating international law in Crimea grows, so do those of Germans raising allegations against the West.”
    “A recent survey conducted by pollster Infratest dimap showed that almost half of all Germans want the country to adopt the middle ground between Russia and the West. “

  9. It’s a bit of a threadjack, so I’ll do my best to keep this comment short and as close to on topic as possible: Phil, your statistics are misleading, and I suggest you take another, much closer read of that NZ Herald article – Chrsitopher Adams is one of the very, very few NZ journos who seems to have a handle on NZ-China issues. For starters, NZ’s share of the overall dairy or infant formula markets is not the point – NZ’s share of the **imported** market is the key. Middle class Chinese turn to imported formula because they so actively distrust Chinese product. NZ dominates the **imported** market. NZ’s reputation is such that dodgy operators have been caught slapping “Made in NZ” on their labels when their formula is way below standard and made in China, because simply having “made in NZ” on the label means they can jack the price up big time. Ads for infant formula really play up the “made in NZ” angle. Many companies like Oravida fall into a weird grey area – they’re NZ companies selling NZ-made formula, but they’re not accepted as being properly NZ in China because they don’t sell their product in NZ, they don’t even make their own product, buying it from contract manufacturers like Green Valley Dairies (in Oravida’s case) or Sutton Group (many others) then slapping their label on. And often Chinese racial politics further muddies the waters – Oravida is not seen as being properly NZ because of its Chinese owners. And then you’ve got Fonterra, whose share size and dominance seems to determine what happens to all NZ players in this market. Fonterra has been involved in three food safety scares since 2008 – Sanlu/Melamine, which created the insane demand for imported formula NZ capitalised so well on, then DCD and Botulism last year. The Sanlu/Melamine incident did massive damage to the Chinese industry, but Fonterra seemed to get through unscathed. The DCD and Botulism scares affected the entire NZ dairy exports to China industry. And they were A Big Deal. When the Chinese media mentioned NZ, they were going on about toxic milk powder. Also, lots of NZ-made formula with the labels of smaller brands using contract manufacturers has failed inspection at the border. Every time they’re named and shamed in the media, and New Zealand gets a big, big mention. And so why was John Key here, and why did he get a dinner with Xi Jinping? Giving little NZ big face? I very much doubt it.

    And Judith Collins’ shenanigans with Oravida and some nameless Chinese border control official? Potentially very big trouble. And certainly a major conflict of interest.

    So to try and keep this on topic: Trade with China will be a major foreign policy issue for whichever government we are lumbered with come the end of September or October or whenever they manage to finish their negotiations and present a seemingly viable coalition/confidence and supply agreement to the governor general. A large part of that is going to be continuing to assure China that NZ is in fact producing quality, clean, safe food that lives up to NZ’s reputation – hence Chinese officials making inspection tours of NZ factories, which I would expect to continue. If National continues in power are they going to stop their short-sighted cost cutting and invest in the talent and resources needed to do this? If a Labour-Green coalition takes over, then what? Especially given the Greens’ childish kneejerk whenever they hear the word “China”… Or Labour-NZ First? Well, Winston has served as Foreign Minister and made less of a complete hash of it than expected given his history of anti-Asian racism…

  10. Chris – It took me a while to respond. I agree your NZ is 80% of China dairy imports is sourced but I am not sure I believe the sources given China statistics. Reality is no doubt somewhere in between. I would agree that the numbers I quoted don’t tell the whole story. My conclusion is that Fonterra is almost criminally negligent in not having its own brand canned in NZ and badged with interference proof packing showing where it was made. It is their farmers that suffer.

    It has been a common failing of NZ primary industry. They focus on getting it offshore as soon as possible with as little processing as possible. Quarter beef, lamb carcass, 25kg sacks of milk powder, prune butt logs. The obvious path is tamper proof retail packaged product.

    We will have to wait for Key memoirs to know whether he was privately carpeted or politely interrogated as to what Obama was like in private on the golf course. I very much doubt any Chinese analysts have that experience.

    NZ foreign policy should remain dominated by trade and the focus on China is right. America continues to lose its way under Obama and the Republican right.

    Pablo says “it will continue with its trade obsession to the detriment of other foreign policy areas such as disarmament, non-proliferation and human rights, and it will strive to deepen its security ties with the US and its close allies”
    The security emphasis is simply repairing the damage caused by Margaret Wilson in the eighties and is perfectly proper. Disarmament in the face of Islamism and Russian militarism would be foolish.
    Non proliferation is something that only international sanctions can realistically achieve.

    That leaves human rights vs trade. I would argue that NZ taking a leading role in trade liberalisation will do more to improve human rights in the long term than standing at the edge of the world preaching. As China reduces poverty through trade its people start to address their own human rights.

  11. Phil – your final sentence is troubling and carries a whole container load of canned worms. Worthy of several books.

    Why does foreign policy have to be EITHER trade OR human rights, as you seem to imply? Is it not possible to do both? And aren’t there a multitude of other issues to be considered?

  12. Be very clear I do not believe it is not either or. Cuba is a fine example of the outcome from a political decision that theoretically trying to protect Cuban human rights by not trading with Cuba has had a perverse unintended outcome. The extension of the regime and a poor outcome for ordinary Cubans. If America had allowed trade and promoted liberalisation it is almost certain that the disruption would have meant the early end of the Cuban regime. By stopping trade and forcing a siege mentality Cuba has been able to blame outsiders.
    The correct path is that followed by New Zealand. Making it clear we disagree with a human rights stance but not using it as an excuse not to trade. I am glad I am not a Chinese citizen but I strongly support trading with China.

  13. “Be very clear I do not believe it is not either or.”
    Moron :) That should be “I do not believe it has to either or.”

  14. Paul:

    The issue is to raise the material (physical and economic) and diplomatic costs of Putin’s clearly signaled limited incursion.

  15. Pablo – The problem is that Germany is not willing to pay the price and Obama prefers appeasement. Britain does not care which is just the same.
    The issue as you state it misses the point completely. Putin is prepared to pay a much higher price than Europe and US. Never mind going to war, they are not prepared to turn off the gas. It is now easy to see what happened with appeasement of Hitler in the thirties. Substitute Iraq/Afghanistan for WWI and Versailles for breakdown of Soviet Union. You have some perfect parallels.

    The Russian empire is coming. Putin will not want China to get Turkmen and Kazakh gas without being able to control it. Look how well that strategy has worked with Europe.

  16. @Phil: Your ‘perfect parallels’ are laughable, characteristic of the sort of keyboard-banging right-wing idiot who compares everything he dislikes to Hitler and throws around such terms as ‘appeasement’. Your ‘ideas’ are not worth engaging with since they are obviously based on attention seeking and your predictions would be laughable even if your track record for predicting the future wasn’t already rubbish. (How’s that invasion of Iran going?). Crawl back into your Tea Party cave, troll.

  17. John:

    Please refrain from insults. You can be sharp in your riposte without resorting to ad hominem attacks.

    Phil certainly has a different view than mine and plenty of commentators, but he is most often courteous even when combative. Although I have lapsed from time to time, we do try to keep things civil here.

  18. Bluster from someone useful to Lenin suggests an individual either too stupid or too smug to consider historic parallels. That is obviously why the lessons of history must be relearned. Whilst I have in the past supported bombing Iran as punishment for its proxy wars throughout the middle east I don’t recall and certainly don’t believe now an invasion would make any sense. But with bluster, insults and smug ignorance what are a few straw men.

    If the parallels are so laughable it must be easy to rebut them. Yeltsin left a democratic country of drunks in supposed terminal demographic decline. Putin has turned around the birthrate and how the country feels about itself. Annexation of Crimea vs Anschluss anyone?

    There is an interesting mention of a Treasury warfare section in the media being used against Islamists. It will be interesting to see whether Obama deploys it against Russia.

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