Appearances are deceiving.

In a recent editorial in the Herald an academic welcomes what he claims is a return to New Zealand’s “independent” foreign policy. As evidence he cites the Chinese rebuke of New Zealand for siding with the Permanent Court of Arbitration’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 Zealand’s UN ambassador condemning Russia’s use of its Security Council veto to thwart humanitarian assistance provision in Syria, and New Zealand’s co-sponsorship of a UNSC resolution condemning Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine.

I disagree. None of these examples offer proof of “independence” 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.

“Independence” in foreign policy implies autonomy in decision-making and execution.  New Zealand does not have that. Instead, what New Zealand has is a “multifaceted” 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 Zealand’s approach to foreign policy violates a maxim of international politics known as “issue linkage” 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 Zealand’s practice, trade, diplomacy and security are treated separately, without an overarching strategic umbrella binding them together.

New Zealand’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 China’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 “independent” 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 country’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 “independent” 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 policy 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 Zealand’s Melian Dilemma.

12 thoughts on “Appearances are deceiving.

  1. Perhaps “independent” was a misprint where “incoherent” was intended?
    Pablo’s critique is right on the nail. For that reason, it will be suppressed and ignored by the powers-that-be in the New Zealand political establishment. If anyone out there thinks that the New Zealand state has any idea where it is going, think again. The realm of New Zealand is a ship of fools which is at risk of sailing off the edge of the world.

  2. I think that the myth of foreign policy independence has been cultivated and deeply ingrained by successive governments since 1985. Much like the constant denials that the NZSAS ever go anywhere to join a fight (until they are revealed to be doing so), NZ governments cling to this fiction for domestic as opposed to diplomatic reasons. After all, does anyone outside of NZ think that being a member of 5 Eyes is compatible with genuine foreign policy independence?

  3. “…unless one thinks that straddling a barbed wire fence while standing on ice blocks is a sign of independence.” With great image-inducing sentences like this in it I do wonder what the Herald has that they would rather print.

    I’ve noticed American international relations commentators seem to just love bringing up the Greek-Persian and Athens-Sparta contentions. I’m kind of surprised I can’t remember you doing it earlier. Your point leads you using Milos as a NZ analogue, but I think Bosporus might be more apt – strategically unimportant.

    I thought you could have mentioned more background on the Chinese steel dumping issue, it’s a bit more interesting than it sounds.

    The US wouldn’t have even needed to have signalled its intentions at the UN, NZ has always sided with everyone else in the world on the Israeli annexation issue.

    Yes, NZ has always been a military ally of the US since WW2, but after Korea it seems to me that Kiwi governments have always tried to commit only token efforts (or secret ones in the case of the SAS), as every war the US engages in is very unpopular in NZ.

    The US is not going to get any more popular in NZ any time soon with Trump as its spokesman.

    “Be it by choice or necessity, New Zealand abandoned an independent foreign policy more than a decade ago.” I would say it abandoned any foreign policy position more than a decade ago.

  4. James:

    I think that because political science evolved as a discipline out of history, and because international relations was the red headed step child of the political science discipline in its early days, IR scholars tended, at least until the 1990s, to ground their theories and frameworks in deep analysis of historical events. That is particularly true for realists and international systems theorists, which are the sub-schools that I studied at both Georgetown and Chicago ( I was a student of both Hans Morgenthau and Morton Kaplan, so got to learn at the knee of the masters).

    As of the 1990s sub-schools like constructivism paid less attention to so-called “deep” history, so more recent IR theory has moved away from reading Thucydides and towards using game theory and other ahistoric analytic models to make arguments.

    In referencing Melos I am referring to the dilemma posed to NZ by its multifaceted foreign policy, not its strategic importance per se.

    You are right that the Chinese steel dumping issue deserved more attention but I was already at 1990 words so could not delve further.

    The issue for NZ regarding the UNSC settlement resolution is that it had already repeatedly failed at gaining support for resolutions on Syria and the Palestine/Israel conflict, and when it had been able to table resolutions on issues such as humanitarian assistance to Syria, they had been vetoed by Russia (and often China). Diplomatic loss of face is a fact of life, so picking up sponsorship of a resolution that was doomed to be vetoed by the US in the last weeks of its temporary seat on the UNSC would have been seen by the NZ delegation as a futile gesture, especially after Trump talked the Egyptians out of co-sponsoring it. So it is possible that the US signalled to NZ and its so-sponsored that it would not object to the resolution being tabled and that it would not exercise its veto against it (some have speculated that this was discussed when John Kerry visited NZ on his way to Antartica a month or so ago).

    There is a peculiarity about the NZ approach to its military relations. It as if it wants to maintain the fiction of military and intelligence non-alignment in spite of the obvious reality that it is deeply intergrated into US-led security networks. That is something that I would have thought is known to the NZ public and therefore should not have to be disguised.

    But since the major parties seem keen to give that false appearance, perhaps their polling suggests something that I am missing.

  5. In this globalized world of ours, perhaps the word independence should be replaced with interdependence.

    So… connecting the dots
    1) Look to Russia, China and Iran as an example of interdependence ( refer Shanghai Cooperation
    Organization )
    2) NZ could adopt a ” wait and see ” stance based on
    President Elect Trump’s foreign policy. Now he has got the job… let’s see if his actions speak louder than words
    3)What ever side we take… the opposition will come back to hit us in some way.
    NZ is too small, too insignificant and too far away for the real movers and shakers to care what our position is

  6. New Zealand may be small, and even relatively insignificant but no major power can afford to completely disregard New Zealand’s position on global issues. Small countries, for example Serbia, Belgium, and Cuba can quickly and easily become the cockpit of great power rivalry.

  7. Hmm, good answers Pablo. Thanks.

    Reality is only obvious if you want to believe it, or if you care about truth and accuracy. The lesson of 2016 is that a great many people reject reality.

  8. Pablo I have two questions

    Where do you think Bernie Sanders now stands in the current situation?

    Will some or any of his ideas now gain traction with the Clinton dynasty now side lined from the political arena?

    I was listening to non MSM Shadow of truth on You Tube
    and the two chaps were talking about both Trump and Clinton as ” no good choice “, hence this inquiry

  9. Edward:

    I think that the answer to your questions rest on two things.

    First, on the individual who gets selected as next DNC Chair. If it is Keith Ellison or someone similar, i.e. on the left of the party, then it is quite possible that at least some of Sanders’ proposals will find their way into the Democratic legislative agenda.

    Secondly, it rests on what the GOP and Trump are able to do in the next two years. If they are able to steamroll their agenda, cutting back on health care, medicare, social security and the like while curtailing reproductive and other rights, etc., all the while continuing to fuel the war complex and arms industry, then it will be hard to see the Democrats moving Left unless the mid term election sees a popular backlash against the GOP because of its success at imposing its agenda. Conversely, should the GOP congressional caucuses split with Trump and amongst themselves over various policy initiatives, then the Democrats may have room to maneuver during the next two years, especially under a Left DNC Chair.Given the need for a 2/3 vote on legislative bills, the best role the Democrats can play is that of obstacles to radical GOP initiatives.

    Of the two, I believe the selection of the DNC Chair is the more important because it will determine if the party does a critical self-assessment and returns to its ideological roots or instead whitewashes the reasons for its 2016 defeat and tries to play the role of GOP light. Schumer as Senate minority leader is not a promising sign, but one can only hope that party activists see the need for a change of direction so that they can take advantage of the fact that Sanders’ proposals had a lot of support not only within the party and amongst younger voters but amongst Trump supporters as well.

  10. I think I see why your letter got rejected Pablo. Too many words.

    The average letter to the editors is going on about rates, house prices, cyclists or something like that (showing selective choices about what letters are printed rather than what they actually receive).

    Good post though, liked the Meilean Dialogue aspect, not sure if we are quite at that point yet given the “do or die” aspect of that situation but I think we know what side NZs bread is butterd on if the US and China get to fighting.

  11. Also Dr Buchanan shows qualities that NZH journalists don’t… independent thought and intellectual grunt

  12. The reason given about rejecting my op ed was that there was a lot of backlog in submissions over the holiday period. The essay I submitted was shorter than this post in order to conform with their guidelines. On a positive note, I received a prompt response rather than the usual silence from the editors, who usually do not deign to inform authors that their submissions have been accepted or rejected.

    What I found interesting is that on previous occasions when I have had an op ed published the Herald allowed rebuttals from interested commentators. Fair enough. My submission to them was a rebuttal of an academics’ shallow and ignorant op ed about the supposed return to independence in NZ foreign policy. But in this instance there appears to be no right to reply.

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