Internationalists versus isolationists in New Zealand.

There has been a fair bit of public debate about the decision to send NZ troops to Iraq. I have had my say on this so will not go over the pros and cons. What has struck me is the clear divide between those who see NZ as a global actor that needs to “play the game” in accordance with its international commitments and obligations, and those that maintain that NZ needs to steer clear of foreign entanglements at any cost.

Let me start with the latter. The isolationist wing of NZ public opinion has a fair dose of pacifism layered in it, often tinged with strong anti-Americanism (especially amongst the activist Left). But isolationism in NZ is rooted in more than pacifism or anti-imperialism, and appears to be born of the idea that being small and far away from the world’s major conflict zones, NZ simply has no dog in those fights and invites unwanted attention should it join them. It should therefore steer clear of messy involvement in places like Iraq and pay more attention, if at all, to its nearest neighbours.

There appears to be a fair bit of isolationist sentiment on the political Right as well as the Left, particularly amongst those of a Libertarian persuasion that value non-interference in the sovereign affairs of others as strongly as the pacifist Left does.

However, for a country that is utterly dependent on trade and long-cultivated international diplomatic, cultural and political ties for its material and social well-being, this would seem to be a bit of a contradiction. It is hard to determine if it is born of popular ignorance of the linkages between trade, diplomacy and security (“issue linkage” in the academic parlance), or because there is simply a “cannot be bothered” attitude amongst the general public (especially the young, as my university teaching friends point out to me).

What does seem clear is that, as in many other countries, the lower one descends the socio-economic totem pole in NZ, the more likely is the prevalence of isolationist views. My reckon is that this is due to the fact that lower class (defined as subsistence wage labourers) or disadvantaged sectors of society are too busy with the rigours and trials of everyday existence to find time to ponder the intricacies of foreign policy, especially when these do not have a discernible and immediate impact at home (in another manifestation of what I have called “survivalist alienation” in other writings).

On the other hand there are two types of internationalists in NZ: so-called multilateralists who believe that all international problems require collective solutions preferably brokered by international organisations such as the UN; and traditionalists who maintain that NZ is bound to join and support its traditional (Western) allies when push comes to shove in the international arena. This latter stance has been complicated by NZ’s increasing trade dependence on Asia, and the PRC in particular, but as of yet the “traditional” focus on Western alliances and forms of international exchange appear to continue to dominate the public imagination.

I am not sure that the thought processes that distinguish multilateralists from traditionalists have filtered down into the public consciousness to the point that such distinctions are made on a general level. Instead, it seems that these viewpoints exist only in the minds of the informed public and political society (to include public bureaucracies and private firms) rather than the “average” Kiwi, especially in non-Pakeha populations. I say the latter because if one looks at the composition of the foreign policy-making elite, it has an extremely strong Pakeha demographic that reflects the economic, political and social values of the upper classes from which it is recruited.

I do not wish to be controversial about this last reflection and am happy to stand corrected if in fact NZ’s internationalist foreign policy perspectives are significantly (as opposed to symbolically) informed by maori, Pacifika and other non-Pakeha voices. It is clear that Asian perspectives have begun to temper the traditionally Anglo-centric views of the foreign policy elite, but I am not sure if that translates into the full embrace of multilateralism over traditionalism , or whether it trickles down to the level of the Kiwi Asian “street.”

Whatever the distribution of isolationists and internationalists in NZ society, the absence of public debate on most issues of foreign policy and the disingenuous approach taken by successive governments to the subject of foreign policy in general and to sensitive subjects like military adventures in particular have not helped clarify where the NZ public stands on matters that are, again, fundamental to the country’s well being over the long-term. For that to happen there has to be a critical media and a curious public that demands of politicians that they address honestly and openly where they stand on NZ’s international position and role. Only then can the weight of public opinion genuinely influence what is to date an elite conversation conducted with minimum popular consultation.

That is not likely to happen anytime soon.

25 thoughts on “Internationalists versus isolationists in New Zealand.

  1. I guess that an attribute of multi-lateralists is non-aligned foreign policy? And more appetite to look at alternative approaches to Islamic State?

    At least in contrast to the traditionalists.

  2. Andrew:

    I tend to count myself amongst the multilateralists. Theoretically it is as you say–foreign policy can be flexible and show a degree of independence on any particular issue (again, keeping in mind that issue linkage does exist in other foreign policy approaches). Theoretically speaking, considering alternative approaches to thorny issues like the conflict with IS is possible.

    Here is the problem: NZ is no longer non-aligned. It has chosen to trade preferentially with the East but closely tie its security to the West (with the Wellington and Washington agreements as well as the 5 Eyes partnership).

    That is a hybrid approach which combines multilateralism with traditionalism. Its architects claim that it allows NZ to keep its options open as part of strategic balancing, but critics (myself included) say is simply schizophrenic or poorly thought out over the long term given the increasingly tense competition between our major trade and security partners. My personal view is that NZ should not have signed the Wellington and Washington declarations, or at least limited them to joint training and humanitarian assistance missions.

    Among other things, rather than offer leverage and flexibility, the hybrid approach counterposes the two foreign policy tacks in forums like the UNSC. NZ consequently risks getting caught in the middle of disputes between its trade and security partners (read: the US and PRC), in a form of Melian dilemma that is not a good place for a small country to be.

    It is precisely the apparent lack of holistic strategic planning that goes into NZ foreign policy that makes me wonder about the strength of different views on international relations within the general public. Because if the foreign policy elite cannot develop an integrated and coherent long-term strategy, then it is incumbent upon the informed public to let them know what the majority view is.

  3. Internationalism means siding with the oppressed and exploited of the world against the people who are oppressing and exploiting them.

    ISIS is a product of a long history of interference in the Middle East by exploitative western powers. Indeed, it was the US-led alliance tearing apart Iraq which gave rise to ISIS in the first place. And it was the US which played a critical role in organising, funding and arming the Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan.

    And while we (rightly) recoil in horror at the ISIS public beheadings, this is a common practice where Wahhabis hold power, as in leading US ally Saudi Arabia.

    The US, NZ and other western powers need to stop interfering in the Middle East:


  4. Thanks Pablo

    Could you not say that until recently NZ had a fairly settled position as a cautious multilateralist, who was aware that it had it’s own interests, and where it would exercise judgement on a case by case basis? What has been upended is that the Wellington and Washington declarations actually represented a marked shift away from that, and represented a return to the pre-1972 reflex, of where Britannia or Washington went, we went. The reaction to the Iraq commitment is therefore more consistent with the previous settled position.

  5. Phil F: I realise what the term “internationalism” means for Marxist-Leninists, but they do not hold exclusive rights to the term. My usage refers merely to having an internationally-centred perspective when it comes to foreign policy.

    As for the rest of your comment–surely you must see the irony of your second paragraph. Modern Iraq’s borders were drawn by Western powers with little regard for its cultural history or ethnogeography, so the US entering and ‘tearing it apart” after 2003 was just another turn of the screw. Plus you fail to recognise the role of the Soviet Union in the construction of the modern Middle East, in that it was the Soviets that backed the Arab nationalist military regimes like Nassar’s, Assad’s and Hussein’s that attempted to promote forms of secular developmentalism that have now been abandoned or reversed by groups espousing pre-modern ideologies.

    Other than US reactionaries, everyone agrees that the rise of IS is due to the US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent vacillation on how to approach the Syrian resistance to Assad.

    Jonas: I agree with your assessment with one small caveat. I think that the era of independence in NZ foreign policy covered the period 1985-2011 rather than extend back to 1972, although I recognise that the seeds of foreign policy independence were sown by end of privileged access to the UK market and the opposition to nuclear testing in the 1970s.

    For an academic look at the evolution of NZ foreign policy in recent years you might want to check out “Lilliputian in Fluid Times: New Zealand Foreign Policy after he Cold War,” Political Science Quarterly V.125, N.2 (2010). You can access the first page and links to the full article at

  6. Pablo wrote: “Plus you fail to recognise the role of the Soviet Union in the construction of the modern Middle East, in that it was the Soviets that backed the Arab nationalist military regimes like Nassar’s, Assad’s and Hussein’s that attempted to promote forms of secular developmentalism that have now been abandoned or reversed by groups espousing pre-modern ideologies.”

    I don’t at all fail to recognise that. I was writing a short comment on an article on this blog, not a potted history of every bit of outside interference in Iraq!

    The problem with many of the secular nationalists was that they came to terms with imperialism, creating a vacuum which has been filled by the Islamic fundamentalists. Moreover, the western powers actively promoted the fundamentalists against the secular radicals in the first place.

    Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and eastwards to Afghanistan is in no small way the creation of interference by western powers and even more directly by western powers’ supporting, funding and arming them.

    I agree with your comment about the 2003 entry being “just another turn of the screw”. That points up the need to take the screw out, not try to make it work better by more intervention.


  7. Phil: I am glad that you understand the impact of the USSR on Arab politics in the late 20th century and generally agree with with your third and fourth paragraphs (although I am not sure that the secular nationalists came to terms with Western imperialism as they were forced to readjust once the USSR fell).

    I take it from your comments that you are a non-pacifist isolationist?

  8. Yes, part of it was readjusting after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the restoration of capitalism in China.

    But it was also partly getting some deals – eg Fatah got to control the Palestinian Authority and the patronage (and corruption) that involves.

    These were the two key factors behind coming to terms with the imperialists.

    I’m an internationalist. I favour workers making links and supporting each other across borders.

    Phil F

  9. Btw, I’m an ex-Sinn Feiner, 1986-1994, so I am very familiar with the process by which once radical movements are co-opted (in particular, how their leaderships are incorporated in rejigged status quo).

    One chunk of the cabal around Gerry Adams is merrily helping administer the system they were once pledged to destroy in the six counties and other cabal members are preparing for government in the 26-counties so they can do the same there.

  10. Thanks Phil. I have no doubt that you are an internationalist in the M-L sense of the term, as I once was (and I still think that international worker solidarity is a key to improving proletarian lives, although not under the international trade union movement as presently constructed) .

    Your bio is noteworthy. But I think that we should stick to the subject of the post rather than digress onto a tangent that, if important, is not the focus here.

  11. I merely mentioned the Irish case as evidence of the way in which radical secular movements can be co-opted (as has happened in Middle East, opening the way for the fundamentalists). I agree, of course, that we don’t want to get side-tracked.

    My idea of workers’ solidarity is *workers* solidarity. It may or not involve specific unions but it’s highly unlikely to involve “the international trade union movement as presently constructed” for reasons whose understanding you and I likely share.

    An example of workers’ solidarity would be some things that the British-based Hands Off the People of Iran have done in recent years and that some on the left did during the wars that went along with the break-up of Yugoslavia.

    To come back to the earlier discussion about NZ foreign policy, at Redline (blog) and in the hard-copy journals that preceded it we spent quite a chunk of time on looking at the changing nature of NZ foreign policy.

    I think the end of the Cold War has been crucial. Western capitalist states no longer have to line up automatically behind the USA. NZ is an interesting example of one which sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t. Around the first Iraq war, the NZ ruling class was more in the Franco-German camp (indeed, Franco-German-Russo-Chinese) than in the US-UK axis.

    Moreover, the fact that China is now a more significant trade partner than the US and that China offers vaster pickings for NZ capital than the US does has a significant impact on NZ foreign policy.

    I don’t share the view of rather too many on the left that Key is some kind of ardent militarist (and he’s also not an ardent neo-liberal). I don’t think him and English are especially keen on getting entangled in Iraq. Sure it might provide Key (and other Nats) with some photo opps wearing flak jackets, but it’s a potential morass.

    Two of the more interesting things about Key’s decision to commit to Iraq is that he dragged his heels pretty much as long as he could and he has committed about the least he could.

    Of course, given that China also faces problems with Islamists – pretty small at present but they could grow – there isn’t a counterweight alliance to the US-dominated one.

    But it will be interesting to see, over time, how NZ deals with the US-China economic rivalries and tensions and how that affects foreign policy around issues like military interventions.

  12. Thanks Phil, for that good analysis. I agree 100 percent with your views on Key (and English).

    It will be interesting to see how the balancing act with the US and PRC plays out.

  13. PS: I wasn’t familiar with this site before, but I will certainly start reading it.

  14. Phil: I cannot speak for my colleagues here at KP but I fear that we may a bit too social democratic (or Gramscian) for your taste. That, plus I tend towards (neo) realism as a basis for my views on international relations and foreign policy. So continue to read us with that in mind.

  15. A good article.

    We are a small weak country with an unformed stance on foreign affairs. We are also a quite moralistic country with mostly good outcomes in our domestic affairs.

    Foreign affairs require decisions of extreme moral ambiguity. Maybe the current ambiguous and unthreatening stance is in our national interest, because it prevents us from having that internal debate.

  16. @Pablo

    I was reading through your post wondering if you were going to realise the situation in NZ vis a vis foreign affairs but come the final paragraph you did(ie the absence of discussion).Or where you just writing it such to build the suspense?

    And while I don’t really agree with you black and white styling of public opinion regarding our upcoming foreign adventure I do think that a curious public and a questioning press are essential to the above process changing. Sadly its a bit chicken and egg, what comes first, would make a great future post though.

  17. I think NZ culture favours ad-hoc solutions over strategic thinking. Seldom are actions taken before necessity forces them and little pre-planning is done. However NZ is able to change very quickly because it has low cultural and political inertia that would otherwise resist sudden changes.

    For myself I favour NZ military aggressive activities only in Oceania, South East Asian and Antarctica. Beyond that zone we should be focusing on diplomatic efforts and purely defensive military operations or observing. I guess I’ll call it Localist Interventionism, although I can’t imagine it’s popular enough to deserve it’s own category.

  18. nice for intellectual Palbo talk , but not do much fun for the family man in a Western Society, say nuclear obliteration Islam, come in here Pablo, tell me about the 35 parallel, maybe I am missing something,

  19. Interesting observation. Equally we could observe that there are those who are for human rights and those against. The transition from al-Maliki to al-Haider in Iraq has not led to the closing down of the repression against the Sunni, the opening of the gates of the prisons or speedy access to justice. The US advise they are now reformed while still fighting rear guard media actions to obfuscate and defend their use of torture. What a great bunch of amigos we have. Hopefully we are not going there to learn from them or offer up Soames Island as a rendition site!
    I have a couple of questions and a number of other observations on the deployment and would be grateful if anyone can advise some answers.
    I may have missed it but have the command and control arrangements that the NZDF group will fit into been advised. Is the group under the command of the Aussies, the Americans, the Iraqis or stand alone? Has the source of the funding for the two year deployment been advised – Defence funds, Government contingency or wealthy philanthropist? Will there be any impact on the projected return to surplus in 201X and a requirement for Bill English to either pull another rabbit/distraction out of the hat or declare force majeure because the ‘club’ needs us? Has it been determined what doctrine the NZDF will be training the Iraqis in – US, Australian, UK – as the NZDF subscribes to those?
    Training curriculum wise the only area where the NZDF has some uniqueness in the area of small unit leadership and the rules of war and it would be heartening to see these two areas get a run on as areas of focus. The relaxed professionalism and humour of the NZers may also be something the Iraqi trainees can draw from their experience as the normal NZDF ‘lets go to the mess for a few’ will be on the backburner.
    The question must be asked if IS are really such a threat as there seems to be a leisurely deployment timeline and a lack of overwhelming force by ‘allied’ nations to sort out a situation that has been going on for over a year. I understand the strategy is to support the Iraqis however the rhetoric about the threat to NZ doesn’t stack up with the tempo required.
    The Iranians seem to be a bit quicker out of the blocks with their support for the Iraqis and training of Shia militias. The head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard shows the Iranian intent and influence. Hopefully General Suleimani can induce some restraint in the militias toward the Sunni and a positive reconstruction process and deployment of aid to retaken areas or there will be a sectarian shambles once IS are defeated.
    I am wondering how the NZDF will determine who to train with the preponderance of the militias in the Iraqi assault forces. Will there be a ‘roll up roll up, come one come all’ approach or will there be a screening process. The potential for their trainees to have been involved in committing human rights abuses will be high.
    It is interesting to note that the US and Turkey have recently agreed to train Syrian groups in Turkey to fight IS and Assad. Are we now also in a stoush with Syria by virtue of our relationship with Uncle Sam or have we firewalled that one? Perhaps still waiting for the invitation and the envoys to arrive pleading for our support!

  20. Brian:

    Those are excellent questions and I am hoping that someone in parliament or connected to someone who is will pass them along to the Opposition. The issues of command, funding, who is being trained and the doctrine governing said training are of particular interest.

    My impression with regard to the latter is that they will be doing basic infantry training, although the realities on the ground suggest otherwise simply because the conflict is well advanced and the move to push IS back well underway. So bodies are needed sooner rather tha later, although your point about the relatively relaxed coalition timetable for deployment is well taken (although remember that a number of coalition partners already have special operators in theatre as well as air strike assets).

    Likewise, your observations about the broader context are worth pondering.

    Thanks for joining the discussion.

  21. Hi Pablo
    It has been a while. NZ Foreign Security Policy has returned to a 100 year norm after a divergence caused by ideologically unbalanced decisions in the mid eighties. It has taken 30 years to correct that mistake and remediate our strategic security. We continue to live in a dangerous world and as a small isolated country correcting that mistake was important. We rejoin the security alliances at the heart of the league of Western democracies with Nato and Anzus at the core. Ask the Tibetans how their transition from feudal to Chinese rule went.
    On the other hand we have good Trade relationships with Asia. Goff and National have taken New Zealand on a good path having a foot in the growing Asian economies whilst maintaining our security relationship with mature/declining western economies.
    That seems a pretty reasonable path to me unless you are anti american. I am no Obama fan but any rational person contrasting Obama with ISIS can only form the conclusion that the West is in the right. I hope Obama is able to make some kind of rapprochement with Iran. We have common cause. Samuel P Huntington had it right. There is a clash of civilisations. We need to work with the less ideological strands of Islam to solve that challenge over decades. Communism was beaten and so can Islamism.

    New Zealand is doing its bit on both fronts. Helping bring China into the Western trade fold and leading trade liberalisation is important.
    Being part of Western security means contribution to the fight against Dark Ages ideology. Whilst personally I would be comfortable with a great deal more there is no question but that we have an obligation to contribute.
    Responding to Brian’s comments about human rights and screening I think it a little too idealistic to suggest we only train the pure and regard our own behaviour under a different lens to that of our opponents.

    Agreed that Western soldiers have behaved in ways that are unacceptable. But the UK government has just discovered it has spent millions paying legal aid to ambulance chasers for Iraqi’s who have made phantom complaints.

  22. Welcome back Phil.

    I just do not think that NZ trying to straddle the fence between the US and PRC is tenable over the long term given their rivalry.

    I also do not believe that Huntington’s clash of civilisations thesis is right. The West is not at war with the entire Muslim world, just some extremist elements with in. And even then these extremists, while violent and malevolent, do not constitute an existential threat to Western civilisation.

    Otherwise our views are not that far apart. We shall see how long that lasts.

  23. Agreed, Pablo. There are big problems in the Middle East that need fixing, and somehow reading Huntington acolytes like Bat Ye’or or Mark Steyn or Robert Spencer doesn’t seem part of the solution.

    The biggest existential threat to Western civilisation I can think of is from within instead of from without. And depending on one’s viewpoint, it’s either called the precariat or neo-feudalism.

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