Plus ca change, or, does Labour have a foreign policy?

Among the things mentioned during the 2017 election campaign, foreign policy was not one of them. This is not surprising, as domestic policy issues tend to dominate election year politics in times of peace in virtually all democracies. The syndrome is compounded in New Zealand, where matters of diplomacy, international security and trade are notable for their absence in both parliamentary debates as well as public concern, only surfacing during moments of controversy surrounding specific issues such as foreign troop deployments, NZ involvement in Anglophone spy networks or negotiating trade deals that appear lopsided in favour of other states and economic interests.

Even if foreign policy is not a central election issue, it nevertheless is an important area of governance that should in principle reflect a Party’s philosophy with regard to its thrust and substance. Given that the Labour-led coalition that formed a government in 2017 represents a departure from nine years of center-right rule, it is worth pondering what approach it has, if any, to reshaping foreign policy in the wake of its election.

It should be noted that NZ foreign policy has been relatively consistent over the last 20 years regardless of which party coalition was in government. Dating to the break up of the ANZUS defense alliance on the heels of its non-nuclear declaration in 1985,  NZ has championed an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line that, if not completely integrating it into the non-aligned movement that rose during the Cold War, granted it some latitude in how it approached its diplomatic relations and international commitments. Foremost amongst these was support for multilateral approaches to international conflict resolution, concern with ethics, rules and norms governing international behaviour, advocacy of small state interests and a self-assigned reputation as an “honest broker” in international affairs. Issues of trade, diplomacy and security were uncoupled once the Cold War ended, something that allowed NZ to navigate the diplomatic seas without the constraints imposed by binding alliance ties to larger partners.

From the mid-90s there has been a trade-centric core to NZ foreign policy, to the point that promoting “free” trade and negotiating trade deals, be they bi- or multilateral in nature, is seen to have overshadowed traditional diplomatic and security concerns such as nuclear non-proliferation, environmental protection and human rights promotion. This “trade-for-trade’s sake” approach was initiated by the Shipley government but deepened under both the 5th Labour government as well as the National-led governments headed by John Key. After 9/11 it was paralleled by a reinforcement of security ties with traditional allies such as Australia, the US and the UK, in spite of the fact that the move towards expanding trade relationships in Asia and the Middle East ran against New Zealand’s traditional advocacy of a principled foreign policy that defended human rights as well as the thrust of the geopolitics perspectives of security allies (which view NZ trade partners such as China and Iran as adversaries rather than partners).

Although both Labour and National continued to voice the “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line during the 2000s, what actually took place was the development of two separate tracks where NZ pushed trade relations without regard to security commitments and human rights, on the one hand, and on the other hand deepened its involvement in US-led security networks without regard to broader diplomatic concerns. This was formalised with the signing of the bi-lateral Wellington and Washington Declarations in 2010 and 2012. For NZ diplomats, the parallel track approach was a matter of keeping eggs in different baskets even if it violated the long-standing principle of security partners trading preferentially with each other. That is not a problem so long as NZ trading partners are not seen as hostile to or competitors of the US and its main allies. Yet NZ chose to expand its trade ties with China with the signing of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2008, something that has not only increased its trade dependency on China in the years that followed (China is now NZ’s second largest export market and third largest import market), but also put it in the unenviable position of trying to remain balanced in the face of increased US-China competition in the Western Pacific Rim. Similarly, NZ-Iranian trade ties, and the nascent talks about NZ-Russian bilateral trade, both run the risk of negatively counterpoising NZ’s economic and security interests in each case.

Following Labour’s lead, the National government doubled its efforts to reinforce its ties to the US-led security network while pushing for trade agreements regardless of domestic opposition to both. It committed troops to the battle against Daesh in Iraq and Syria and continued to maintain presence in Afghanistan after its formal commitment to the ISAF mission ended in 2013. It revamped and upgraded its commitment to the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection partnership that includes the US, UK  Australia and Canada. It loudly advocated for the TransPacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) even though the 12 country pact was largely seen as favouring US economic interests and serving as the economic component of a US containment strategy towards China in the Western Pacific.

Now it is the Labour-led coalition headed by Jacinda Ardern that holds the reins. What can we expect from it when it comes to foreign policy? Continuity when it comes to the “two-track” approach? A deepening of one track and softening of the other? An attempt to bring a third track–what might be called a humanitarian line that re-emphasises human rights, environmental protection and non-proliferation, among other rules-based policy areas–into the mix?

From what is seen in its foreign policy manifesto, Labour appears to want to have things a bit of both ways: overall continuity and commitment to an “independent” foreign policy but one in which ethical concerns are layered into trade policy and in which international security engagement is framed by UN mandates and multilateral resolutions (as well as a turn away from military combat roles and a re-emphasis on peace-keeping operations). A commitment to renewed diplomatic endeavour, particularly in international fora and within the South Pacific region, is also pledged, but the overall thrust of its foreign policy objectives remain generalised and rhetorical rather than dialed in on specifics.

A few months into its tenure, the new government has done nothing significant with regards to foreign policy. Jacinda Arden made some noises about resettling the the Manus detainees in NZ during her first official trip abroad, only to be rebuked  by Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and her own Opposition. She also made  ill-advised comments about who Donald Trump may or may not thought she was, leading to skepticism as to the veracity of her story. NZ First leader Winston Peters was named foreign minister more as a matter of style (and reward) rather than in recognition of his substance when it comes to foreign affairs. Likewise, Ron Mark got the nod to be Defense Minister in what appears to be a sop thrown to an old soldier who enjoys military ceremonies but cannot get his medals rack sorted correctly. Andrew Little was apparently made Minister responsible for Intelligence and Security because he is a lawyer and a reputed tough guy who as Opposition Leader once sat on the Parliamentary Select Committee on Intelligence and Security, rather than because he has any particular experience in that field, especially with regard to its international aspects. The Greens, in the past so vociferous in their defense of human rights, pacifism, non-interventionism and anti-imperialism, have gone silent.

As for the Labour Party foreign policy experts, whoever and how many there may be (if any), the question is how do they see the world. Do they use (neo) realist, idealist, constructivist or some hybrid framework with which to frame their perspective and that of their government? Do they use international systems theory to address issue linkage in foreign policy and to join the dots amongst broader economic, social, military and political trends in world affairs as well the nature of the global community itself?  Are they aware of the Melian Dilemma (in which small states are often forced to choose alliance between competing Great Powers)? iven the predominance of trade in NZ foreign policy, how do they balance notions of comparative and competitive advantage when envisioning NZ’s preferred negotiating stance? If not those mentioned, what conceptual and theoretical apparatuses do they employ? On a practical level, how do their views match up with those of the foreign affairs bureaucracy and career diplomatic corps, and what is their relationship with the latter?

Issues such as the ongoing NZDF deployments in Iraq (and likely Syria, if the NZSAS are involved) have not (yet) been reviewed in spite of early campaign promises to do so. Nor, for that matter, has Labour taken a detailed critical eye to the stalled TPPA negotiations now that the US has abandoned them, or re-examined its diplomatic approaches towards the Syrian, Ukrainian and Yemeni civil wars, South China Sea conflicts, the North Korean nuclear weapons program, post-Brexit economic relations, maritime conservation regimes and a host of other important and oft-contentious topics.

Judging from the manifesto it is hard to discern a coherent intellectual underpinning to how Labour policy makers approach international relations. It is also difficult to know how the new government’s foreign policy elite relate to the careerists charged with maintaining NZ’s international relations. So far, there is no identifiably Labour approach to foreign affairs and policy carry-over from previous governments is the norm.

That may not hold for long. The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has changed the global environment in which NZ foreign policy is formulated and practiced because if anything, he has rejected some of the foundational principles of the NZ approach (support for the UN and multilateralism) with his “America First” philosophy and has increased global tensions with his belligerent posturing vis a vis adversaries and his bullying of allies. That combination of provocation, brinkmanship and alienation of allies brings with it high risks but also a diplomatic conundrum for NZ. Given that NZ maintains good relations with some of US adversaries as well as allies, yet is intimately tied to the US in uniquely significant ways, its ability to maintain the dichotomous  approach to an independent foreign policy may now be in jeopardy.

After all, the US now demands open expressions of “loyalty” from its allies, for example, in the form of demands that security partners spend a minimum of two percent of GDP on defense (NZ spends 1.1 percent), and that trade partners give acknowledged preference to US economic interests when signing “deals” with it. In that light, and with Trump increasingly looking like he wants open conflict with one or more perceived rivals (and is on a clear collision course with China with regards to strategic preeminence in the Western Pacific), the “two-track” NZ foreign policy may now be more akin to trying to straddle a barbed wire fence while balancing on ice blocks rather than a matter of saving diplomatic eggs.

In light of this, it is time for the Labour government to stand up and be heard about where they propose to steer NZ in the international arena during what are clearly very fluid and uncertain times.

19 thoughts on “Plus ca change, or, does Labour have a foreign policy?

  1. A very good analysis, though I do not expect the Labour-led government to respond in a way that would bring clarity to its foreign policy.
    A couple of points. Winston Peters was Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Clark government, so has a track record in that role. More importantly, he is a conservative on foreign policy, and his appointment signals that Labour will hold fast to the traditional security and geopolitical alliances with the UK and US and possibly (though not necessarily) incline towards the Trump administration’s developing anti-China policy. Ron Mark’s appointment is likewise a signal that Labour will be a friend to the NZDF, even while keeping a fairly tight hand on the purse-strings. The real concern over Labour’s apparent lack of a coherent and defensible foreign policy is that, as revealed in the “Financial Times” article of 11 December the security services are themselves actively seeking to determine New Zealand foreign policy. In 1984, lacking a coherent economic policy of its own, the Lange Labour government absolutely, unconditionally and uncritically adopted the Treasury prescription for deregulation, globalism and open labour markets with catastrophic consequences for millions of working class New Zealanders.
    Will Jacinda Ardern’s government now submit to the directives of the SIS on foreign policy? The lack of response to the “Financial Times” story from the regime’s media and political establishment suggests that the government may indeed submit to the SIS line and join the US in a confrontation with China, thus provoking another social and economic crisis in this country.

  2. IMHO we don’t have a two track, we have a three track foreign policy – the third being piously professing belief in the UN and international law. We aim to get away with our triple contradiction by hoping we are sufficiently irrelevant that by the judicious use of silence no one will notice enough to call us out on it. This triple track is the bi-partisan consensus, although the cowboys of the GCSB and SIS are happy little pro-American stop-outs who, frankly, should be relied upon to show 100% loyalty to the NZ Government.

    One thing I would like to hear your views on Pablo. One of the most worrying aspects to me of New Zealanders is their refusal to take our sovereignty seriously, meaning we have a view of the world inflected with a naive denial (that reaches the level of utter self delusion at times) that says everyone is nice and the world loves us as cute and harmless Hobbits who wouldn’t harm a fly, and therefore will happily leave us alone as long as we make soothing noises. Thus, to suggest the Chinese might seek to infiltrate our establishment or use their growing minority here to make internal mischief is dismissed as conspiratorial nonsense, or to say that our security services might feel they owe loyalty to some wider Anglo-Saxon imperial project is met with rolling eyes, as if that sort of thing doesn’t happen in the boondocks of the pacific. Do you detect this cultural failure to take threats to our well being and sovereignty seriously as well? or is it typical of most western countries these days?

  3. In reply to “Sanctuary” (while acknowledging that his message was addressed to Pablo).
    The security services are in fact divided, with a dissenting old guard loyal to the UK rather than the US. They are basically National Party loyalists, who are critical of the Thiel connection, suspicious of the Trump administration and therefore less inclined to follow the anti-China policy. It appears that this old guard is responsible for some recent media leaks (others have come from the top level of the SIS) and they probably have the sympathy of Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters. So Labour could go either way, though the government will find it hard to resist being suborned by a security service which is openly challenging the policies of the previous National-led government.
    We hold true to the sovereignty of the people of Aotearoa under God, which is why we refuse to pledge allegiance to the British monarch, and encourage all New Zealanders to do likewise. Ethnicity is not the issue, and even if I did not have part-Chinese mokopuna, as I do, I would strongly resist the current efforts of the SIS to incite anti-Chinese sentiment in this country. As an independent nation under God we should apply the same rules, and adopt the same approach when dealing with the PRC, the UK, the US and all other world powers. Aotearoa should acknowledge no superior powers, privileged friends, or assigned adversaries. One thing is certain: that will not happen under the current colonial regime.

  4. Geoff:

    I am aware of Winston’s previous tenure as Foreign Minister, which is why I tried to diplomatically refer to the job as a “reward” as opposed to one of the baubles of office given to him in exchange for his agreement to enter into coalition with Labour. If we want our Foreign Ministers to be charming and capable of holding his/her drink on the international stage, then Winston is the ideal person for the position. But otherwise his appointment had nothing to do with a particular foreign policy approach or change thereof.

    I do take note of your point about him being conservative on foreign policy and therefore the appointment signalling continuation of the National (pro-US) approach, although his recent favourable comments on China are an interesting backtrack from his previous comments about all things Chinese. In an age of Trump those words may come back to haunt him.


    IMO the reason for NZ’ers disinterest in defending sovereignty stems from a historical subordination to and dependence on great power interests, an ongoing sense that distance buys NZ protection from global conflicts, general ignorance of international affairs and foreign influences on Aotearoa and the ideological brainwashing done over the least three decades by neoliberalism as a social as well as economic project in which individual material fortunes supersede all other measures of worth, to include fealty to the foundational myths of equality, honesty, and integrity in the conduct of pubic and private life.

    As for Chinese infiltration of NZ institutions and processes. What interests me is not so much that the PRC employs its “sharp” (as opposed to “hard,” “soft” or “smart” ) power to influence NZ attitudes towards it. What is of interest is the number of elite Kiwis who willingly or unwillingly, most often for monetary reward, shill for and defend Chinese behaviour at home and abroad. Be it Jenny Shipley and her family or myriad others in the upper socioeconomic strata of NZ society, it seems that many influential Kiwis are more than happy to exchange their public and private services as pro-Chinese interlocutors, facilitators and opinion-makers in return for material favours of one kind or another. This, to me, should be the focus of much greater scrutiny than it has heretofore been awarded.

  5. “Be it Jenny Shipley and her family or myriad others in the upper socioeconomic strata of NZ society, it seems that many influential Kiwis are more than happy to exchange their public and private services as pro-Chinese interlocutors, facilitators and opinion-makers in return for material favours of one kind or another.”
    In previous decades these people would have acted as agents of British or American power. Now some among them serve the PRC and Chinese corporate interests.
    There are no surprises here. Flunkeys have no fixed loyalties. Those who serve and have been privileged by the colonial regime will readily transfer their allegiance to any new or up-and-coming imperial overlord. First Britain, then the United States, and now China. I question whether people like Dame Jenny Shipley have a right to be called “elite kiwis”. Are they not just contemptible quislings? Let us not fall victim to the delusion peddled by some that “the Chinese” are a problem. The colonial political establishment is our real enemy and so long as New Zealanders choose to ignore that manifest truth they will continue to suffer the consequences.
    In this context Winston Peters faces a dilemma. His historical opposition to Chinese immigration might incline him to join the burgeoning anti-China campaign, but his nationalism, informed by the realization that the campaign is being orchestrated by the security chiefs acting in the interests of a foreign power, may give him cause to pause.

  6. National drastically cut MFAT staff levels about 5 years ago. It will be interesting to see if Labour does anything about this.

    My general perception of Labour was that apart from a few minor policies they didn’t have anything really sorted out before winning the election. I guess the plan was to get the treasury benches and then figure out what type of government they were going to be when they got there.

  7. “Andrew Little was apparently made Minister responsible for Intelligence and Security because he is a lawyer and a reputed tough guy rather than because he has any experience in that field”

    Is there a sitting Labour/NZF/Greens MP who does have experience in the field?

  8. Erewhon:

    Good question. With Annete King, Cunliff, Goff, Shearer and other old hands gone, there is not much on that side of the aisle when it comes to backgrounds in intelligence and security. Even more so with the Greens, who are intensely distrusted by the intel agencies and other parties when it comes to national security. So perhaps Little is the best of the bunch, although Winston could have filled the role if that level of qualification–a law degree and previously sitting on the ISSC–is all that is required.

  9. Perhaps New Zealand political parties need to do more to recruit election candidates with intelligence backgrounds.

    Although, at the risk of repeating myself, some parties would have great difficulty finding anybody with that background who believes in their polices; the Greens, for example.

  10. And therein lies the rub. No party can expect to be taken seriously by the intel and security establishment if it does not have in its ranks, even if as mere analysts in the research units, people who have some competence in those areas. In fact, the absence of such personnel leads easily to the “bureaucratic capture” phenomenon that in have noted previously.

    As for the Greens. Beyond their present disarray, I was struck during conversations related to the intelligence review at the depth of loathing of them by security insiders. It seems to have much to do with their pacifist and anti-intelligence positions of the past (think Keith Locke), but what is clear to me is that if the Greens are ever to be included in serious discussions about intelligence and security they will have to reconsider their traditional enmity towards those who engage in it.

    That is why Russell Norman’s tenure on the ISSC was unsuccessful. Although I have no doubt that he intended well, the mutual dislike between him and the intel agency bosses and the utter lack of trust in him exhibited by the latter apparently turned their meetings into argument fests and prevented him from gaining access into anything remotely considered to be of high sensitivity.

  11. The problem is, isn’t this kind of antidemocratic? The idea that the Greens have to modify their policies in order to satisfy the bureaucracy – especially the segment of the bureaucracy that those policies are intended to reform – strikes me as exactly the reverse of the way democracy is intended to work. Not least when those policies are broadly popular with the Greens’ voters.

    It’s impossible for a political party to have a policy that will fix (or even mitigate) the deep problems entrenched in the security services while simultaneously retaining the respect and goodwill of those services, because the services’ respect is conditional on the status quo being more or less maintained.

    This dynamic is pretty much true across all levels of bureaucracy; I could make pretty much the same statement about a party that wanted to reform the Reserve Bank or the Ministry of Conservation (for example). The difference is, few commentators would object to a party that didn’t have a former Conservation Ministry bureaucrat or a Reserve Banker among its MPs.

    (As an aside re: Little, it did occur to me that as a former Leader of the Opposition, he would once have received briefs from the SIS, so he has a slightly higher level of experience with intelligence matters… although still not close to the level of experience of a middle-ranked intelligence officer, but more than most of his colleagues).

  12. I agree with Erewhon on that, and further suggest that the Greens would at least have access to people with some knowledge of intelligence methodology – Nicky Hager for instance?
    The problem would seem to be that the SIS don’t like the Greens, and the Greens don’t like the SIS, and no level of technical intelligence skills on the part of the Greens is going to change that.
    As it happens, the new generation leadership of the SIS/GCSB is also frustrated with the National Party, and Labour may be the only major party the security chiefs can do business with at this time. A problem for the security services is that they can only influence the course of politics through the political parties (recent attempts to influence the public directly are more a sign of desperation than of a well-conceived political strategy), but on the other hand the security services only need the backing of Labour, the lead party in government, in order to fully advance their own foreign policy agenda.
    Labour now has the opportunity to purge or at least sideline the old-guard National Party loyalists in the security services in return for endorsing the SIS foreign policy agenda. Whatever they may or may not understand about security and intelligence, the Labour government will be very aware that a friendly security-intelligence organisation is an important help when it comes to holding and maintaining political power.

  13. Erewhon,

    Your points are well taken, as usual. My take on this is double sided: if parties entering government have staff and/or MPs that have experience in intelligence and security matters–be in from prior practice or even academia–then intelligence agencies and the military will be more open to suggestions about reform etc. At least in terms of starting a discussion about what needs to be done, use of alternative perspectives etc. That lessens the possibility of bureaucratic capture and increases the possibility of engagement between the political overseers and practitioners in the intelligence process.

    I say this because as a very young person I was privileged to be invited into the US intel and security community precisely because I had, along with some other “attributes,” a different take on how US intel and security agencies should look at Latin America. This was before the end of the Cold War but one of my arguments was premised on the belief that the US should stop its anti-communist obsession and spend more time on the socioeconomic disparities that led to the rise of revolutionary movements in the face of deeply ingrained and unmoving anti-democratic conservative forces that were as inimical to US values as any commie was. The result was that for a decade or so my colleagues and I were able to reform the training and orientation of the US intelligence gathering apparatus in the region, something that unfortunately was reversed after I emigrated to NZ in 1997.

    In sum: the intel and security bureaucracy may not be as monolithically impervious to reform if those advocating for it from the outside have some idea of what they are talking about and are not seen as adversaries or dupes from the get-go.

  14. IDK Pablo, I am sure you did great work but at the same time, looking at the current state of the US intelligence community, it is still desperately in need of reform.

    Ultimately while the intelligence community may prefer a reformer with technical skills to a reformer without technical skills, they will prefer a non-reformer to either.

    I share your concern about bureaucratic capture, but to me, the idea that elected politicians must strive to win the respect and goodwill of the bureaucracy and its members seems to be a formula to increase, not decrease, bureaucratic capture.

  15. @Geoff: While Hager may have technical knowledge, I seriously doubt the intelligence community would react well to his presence.

    (Also, I think he has always resisted formally affiliating with the Greens, even if he often works with them)

  16. Erewhon: I think you are correct in both respects. My point would be that in any profession, including intelligence, “amateurs” can acquire a valuable level of expertise which political parties can employ to advantage. Politicians also need to be able to sift and weigh fact and opinion in order to come to a decision on matters that they themselves may not know a lot about, in the same way that a judge of the high court not trained in banking, commerce, chemistry, physics, metallurgy and so on may, at some point, be required to make a judgement dependent on a correct understanding of the principles of one or other of those disciplines. What Labour really needs in order to govern effectively, and to avoid bureaucratic capture, are qualities of discernment, intellectual rigour and moral courage. Specialized knowledge is good to have in oneself, but sometimes can approach a problem armed with nothing more than a critical and inquiring mind and still have a satisfactory outcome.

  17. Just as an example of what may be out there in terms of intelligence related expertise, there is a professional association of intelligence specialists by the name of New Zealand Institute of Intelligence Professionals (NZIIP)– This includes active as well as retired NZ intel people, corporates that have intel related interests (e.g. security firms), military intel types (active and retired), retired foreign intel personnel, academics and others. Although many may be of the “old boy” school I am willing to bet that many others are not and have a range of perspectives on how to reform and revamp the NZIC. Political parties might be wise to tap into their ranks in order to develop some in-house understanding of the business.

  18. Pablo, I don’t know about every NZIIP member’s individual views, but the organisation is very much part of the network that supports the status quo. It was founded by the then-serving SIS Director Warren Tucker (not someone you are a fan of, I know) and its conferences almost always end up endorsing current government policy as best practice. So if I was the leader of a reformist political party looking to recruit candidates with an intelligence background who nonetheless supported intelligence reform, I’d expect pretty thin pickings from NZIIP.

    (Plus, it recruits from non-intelligence agencies like Customs and Corrections; I somehow doubt a former Corrections Officer would meet your criteria for an intelligence specialist, even if their title within Corrections had had an ostensible intelligence function).

  19. Thanks Erewhon, for that clarification. Perhaps that is why my membership application was rejected (just joking, but I did not know that Warren Tucker has help create it). I still think that there might be some outliers in its membership and I certainly would consider people who collect and analyse intelligence in other agencies such as Customs and Corrections (especially on HUMINT) and Treasury (long term trend analysis) to be suitable candidates for intel analyst jobs in party research units. In fact, the more diverse the poll of candidates and mix of hires the better.

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