In a recent editorial in the Herald an academic welcomes what he claims is a return to New Zealandâ€™s â€œindependentâ€ foreign policy. As evidence he cites the Chinese rebuke of New Zealand for siding with the Permanent Court of Arbitrationâ€™s ruling in favour of the Philippines in its dispute with China over the legality of Chinese claims in the South China Sea, the remarks by New Zealandâ€™s UN ambassador condemning Russiaâ€™s use of its Security Council veto to thwart humanitarian assistance provision in Syria, and New Zealandâ€™s co-sponsorship of a UNSC resolution condemning Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine.
I disagree. None of these examples offer proof of â€œindependenceâ€ in foreign policy. Instead, they represent long-standing New Zealand positions and, if anything, a pro-US orientation on all three issues.
I submitted my response to the Herald but it was rejected. So I publish it here.
When New Zealand campaigned for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council it rested its case in large measure on making progress on the Israel/Palestine conflict and pushing for a halt to the Syrian civil war on humanitarian grounds. With regards to Chinese building of artificial islands on South China Sea reefs claimed by (and sometimes in sight of) other countries, New Zealand has consistently urged adherence to international maritime law, particularly rules governing freedom of navigation, safe passage and non-militarisation of environmentally sensitive ecosystems. All of these positions were firmly staked out well before the supposed return to foreign policy independence.
The New Zealand position on the three issues dovetails neatly with that of the US, and in fact it was the US abstention on the UNSC settlement resolution, in a change from long-standing practice of vetoing any resolution critical of Israel, that made the difference in securing its passage. It is likely that the US signalled this shift in advance of the UNSC vote, thereby giving diplomatic cover to New Zealand and its co-sponsors.
â€œIndependenceâ€ in foreign policy implies autonomy in decision-making and execution. Â New Zealand does not have that. Instead, what New Zealand has is a â€œmultifacetedâ€ foreign policy that consists of three components: trade, diplomacy (including climate diplomacy) and security. These issue areas are not treated holistically, that is, as component parts of a larger scheme. Instead, they are approached compartmentally by the diplomatic corps (also known as being “siloed” in the bureaucratic jargon).
On trade New Zealand looks East, especially but not exclusively to China, for its material fortunes. It does so pragmatically, disregarding the human rights, environmental or political records of its trading partners. Diplomatically it rests on principle, seeking to reaffirm multilateral solutions brokered by international organisations like the UN and regional bodies such as ASEAN as well as upholding the rule of law in international relations. For security New Zealand acts practically and looks West, particularly to the other members of the Five Eyes intelligence network (Australia, Canada, the UK and the US). The latter also has a strong military component as a result of historical ties to the Anglophone world and the Wellington and Washington declarations signed in 2010 and 2012, respectively, which make New Zealand a first tier security partner of the US.
The overall conceptual mix underpinning New Zealand foreign policy is one of idealism or realism depending on what issue area is being addressed. That does not make for independence, which presumably rests on a core set of principles that extend across the field of diplomatic endeavour. If anything it is opportunistic and short-term in orientation.
New Zealandâ€™s approach to foreign policy violates a maxim of international politics known as â€œissue linkageâ€ where security partners trade preferentially with each other and vice versa. In this framework, diplomatic endeavour in discrete policy areas is treated as part of a larger long-term strategic plan that is coherent across all aspects of international exchange. However, in New Zealandâ€™s practice, trade, diplomacy and security are treated separately, without an overarching strategic umbrella binding them together.
New Zealandâ€™s approach ignores the reality of great power competition, specifically but not exclusively that between the US and China, where New Zealand finds itself economically dependent on one rival and security dependent on the other. Already the Chinese have begun to threaten New Zealand with economic reprisals if it continues to align its approach to the South China Sea disputes with that of the US (using as a pretext investigations into Chinese steel dumping in NZ, which the Chinese have issue-linked to the maritime dispute). The US has countered Chinaâ€™s rise by attempting to promote the Trans Pacific Partnership as a trade hedge against Chinese economic influence in the Western Pacific (now moribund as the result of the Trump election victory) and by re-emphasising its security commitment to New Zealand, most recently evident in the visits by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State john Kerry and the port call by the USS Sampson on the occasion of the RNZN 75th anniversary celebrations.
Trading preferentially with one emerging great power while strengthening military and intelligence ties with its superpower rival does not make New Zealand â€œindependentâ€ unless one thinks that straddling a barbed wire fence while standing on ice blocks is a sign of independence. With the US and China on a collision course as their rivalry heats up across the spectrum of contentious areas, something that the Trump presidency is likely to aggravate, the time when New Zealand may have to choose a side may well be approaching. An independent country with an autonomous foreign policy grounded in a coherent long-term strategic plan would not have to make such a choice.
The current conundrum is the product of a turn away from independence that began after 9/11 when the 5th Labour government opted to begin the process of reconciliation with the US after the chilling of bilateral relations resultant from the 1985 non-nuclear declaration by the Lange government. Since the decision to become a model of Ricardian trade economics was made well before 9/11, the move to bilateral reconciliation with the US introduced an element of multipolarity to New Zealand diplomacy, something that has now become entrenched in its multifaceted approach to international affairs.
New Zealand diplomats will reject the suggestion that the countryâ€™s foreign policy is bipolar, multipolar or anything other than independent. They will say that the current approach allows New Zealand to put its eggs in several baskets and thereby avoid over-reliance on any one of them. That is good public relations (mostly for domestic consumption), but reality suggests otherwise.
In the current era of global politics where international norms and laws are continually violated with impunity (including those outlawing crimes against humanity and war crimes), and where international organisations have been shown to be powerless to stop even the most grotesque of atrocities, small states must increasingly chart courses of action in an arena dominated by great powers that have, in at least some cases, no interest in upholding or adhering to international norms and law, much less submit their sovereign decisions to the dictates of international agencies. That makes pursuing independence as a matter of principle perilous at best.
Perhaps the pundit cited at the beginning does not realise it (probably because he does not specialise in international relations theory or foreign policy practice), but the current international moment is more akin to a Hobbesian state of nature rather than a Rousseauian meadow. Trying to remain â€œindependentâ€ as a small state in such an environment is more likely to lead to the fate of Melos (which was destroyed by the Athenians when it refused to abandon its neutrality in the conflict between Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian Wars) rather than national security, peace and prosperity. In that light a multifaceted approach may be the least harmful course of action if for no other reason than the fact that pursuing foreign policy independence is impossible and potentially disastrous in a context where universal rules no longer apply and great power rivalries are starting to spill into conflict (be it armed, cyber or economic).
Be it by choice or necessity, New Zealand abandoned an independent foreign policyÂ more than a decade ago. What it has been doing ever since is to play a compartmentalised three-sided game as a hedge against uncertainty in a world in transition, choosing friends, partners and allies as circumstances warrant. As a result it is now involved in counterpoised relationships with rival great powers at a time when international law and organisations are largely ineffectual. The conceptual ice upon which its foreign policy stands in slowly melting and the barbed perils of foreign policy contradiction are approaching in equal measure. The trend is irreversible.
This is New Zealandâ€™s Melian Dilemma.