New Zealand goes it alone.

The New Zealand Labour government’s refusal to join international collective action against Russia over the nerve agent attack in the UK on former spy Sergei Skripal is perplexing. The 27-nation solidarity coalition expelling Russian diplomats and intelligence officers from their soil includes all of New Zealand’s major security partners as well as important trade counterparts. New Zealand is a member of the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection and sharing network including Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, so it has better knowledge than most as to what evidence the UK has to indicate that Vladimir Putin’s regime ordered the hit on Skripal. New Zealand is an extra-regional NATO and EU associate, and like the majority of the members of the coalition, it is a democracy. New Zealand fashions itself as a good international citizen and honest broker in international affairs, so it seems odd that it would not join its closest diplomatic interlocutors in what is largely a symbolic gesture of repudiation of Russian misbehavior abroad.

The decision was made all the more quixotic by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s claim that there are “no undeclared Russian intelligence operatives” in New Zealand and hence there was no need to expel anyone. She claimed to have assurances from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) that was the case, even though MFAT has no counter-intelligence function nor the ability to ascertain who is and who is not a Russian intelligence officer, declared or undeclared (that is the job of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS)). She later changed her story to saying that her advice did in fact come from the SIS, but without acknowledging her original misstatement (which happened during a RNZ interview so is recorded for posterity). Her repeated comments that if there were such spies in New Zealand they would be expelled produced derisive headlines around the globe but more importantly, raised questions about her competence when handling security matters.

Discussion in New Zealand about the issue has been muddled by the PM’s remarks. The minor aspect of the story is about whether there are Russian intelligence operatives in NZ and whether they should be expelled. The answers to that are “yes” and “possibly.” “Possibly” depends on the answer to the major aspect of the story: the reasons why NZ decided not to join the so-called “expulsion coalition.” I shall focus on the latter but suffice it to say that all of the 150 Russian personnel expelled by the coalition hold diplomatic passports so by definition are not working undercover as spies without diplomatic immunity. Nor were all of those expelled intelligence officers working under official cover (i.e. with diplomatic immunity).

The detour into what constitutes an “undeclared intelligence agent” was unnecessary and unhelpful in clarifying the reasons behind NZ’s decision to reject the UK request to join it in repudiating the Russian assassination attempt. That reasoning continues to remain unclear at present. Claiming that the decision to not adhere to the collective expulsion action is because there was no one who met the definition of “undeclared intelligence agents” operating in New Zealand is a diversion from the underlying rationale because it puts the focus on the instrumentalities of response rather than the reasons for it.

So why has New Zealand chosen to isolate, or perhaps better said, alienate itself from its traditional allies and major security partners? To be sure, members of the coalition have their own histories of foreign skullduggery and intrigue, to include extrajudicial killings abroad. Moreover, diplomacy is often no more than hypocrisy masquerading as self-righteousness standing in defense of principle. Perhaps the Labour government wants to give the lie to the posturing of its most important allies.

Even so, pragmatic assessments usually inform foreign policy decisions, particularly those involving choosing sides in international disputes. That is particularly true for small states when confronted with the demands of quarreling powers to take a position in favour of one side or the other. This “Melian Dilemma” is an unavoidable part of being small in a world dominated by competing great powers, so Lilliputians such as New Zealand usually think long and hard before taking an unpopular stand—particularly amongst its friends.

New Zealand’s decision not to participate in the solidarity coalition was made in the face of a direct request from the May government and in spite of the fact that the collective action is largely symbolic. Although Russian intelligence operations will be adversely affected in places like the UK, US and Germany, many of those being expelled are “normal” diplomats who can be recalled at some future date. So the downside to joining the coalition would seem relatively small even with Russian threats of retaliation, and the upside in terms of being seen to be a good diplomatic partner that supports international norms could well outweigh whatever the Russians can respond with.

Perhaps there lies the explanation. New Zealand’s foreign policy in recent years has been trade obsessed and speculation has it that members of the foreign policy establishment see the possibility of advancing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with Russia in the vacuum left by the trade sanctions levied on it in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion and annexation of Crimea. New Zealand and Russia opened talks on trade before the sanctions were imposed, then suspended them afterwards. Official advice from the foreign ministry is that violating the sanctions regime to try to exploit a possible window of opportunity vis a vis Russia is counterproductive at best.

But talk in Wellington is that some in the Labour-led government are keen to resume negotiations, so taking a contrary stance on response to the nerve agent assassination attempt is a means of currying favour with Putin at a time when other competitors are not. Given that Foreign Minister Winston Peters has questioned claims that Russia was involved in the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine, or that it interfered in US and European elections, and has refused to name Russia as the perpetrator of the attempted Skripal hit, what once seemed to be an unhinged rationale for resuming bilateral trade negotiations is now being given credence.

It is also possible that Labour is attempting to stake out its “independent and autonomous” foreign policy credentials after nine years of the previous government’s rapprochement with the US and the other Five Eyes partners. Given the animosity felt towards Donald Trump (and to a lesser extent Teresa May) amongst Labour supporters as well as those of its coalition partners (New Zealand First and the Green Party), this is a way of playing David versus Goliath(s) for domestic audiences.

New Zealand could also be signalling the international community. After all, over 140 nations did not sign up to the collective action, including major trading partners in Asia and the Middle East. No Pacific Island nation (other than those represented by France, the UK and US) signed on to the deal. So in terms of demonstrating its sovereign resolve to remain out of great power conflicts when and where possible, this Labour government may be channeling the spirit of independence championed by David Lange during the 1985 nuclear showdown.

And yet, pragmatic assessment of the situation would advise the Labour-led government to address the short and long term costs and benefits of alienating its most important foreign partners by refusing to join in the symbolic repudiation of Russia. By any objective measure, to include the possibility of securing bilateral trade with Putin’s regime, the costs of doing so will clearly outweigh the benefits even if it does not interfere with the daily business of intelligence sharing and military cooperation with the Five Eyes and other security partners.

On the other hand, virtue signalling its independence may garner New Zealand some favor with those outside of the “exclusion coalition” as well as domestic audiences. The play is both short and long-term in nature, with the question being will a short term move of this sort translate into longer term benefits or losses.

In the diplomatic world the shadow of the future hangs heavily over present decision-making. Sequels are uncertain and memories are elephantine in nature. The consequences of being shortsightedly contrarian are determined not by the contrarian but by those refused support on a matter of international consequence and foreign policy alignment. On the other hand, standing up to great power partners may risk the wrath of those slighted but win broader appeal among those in the global community who are averse to the machinations of the mighty.

With that in mind the question remains: what exactly were the reasons for this move and what does the New Zealand Labour government expect to gain from its contrarian (even if principled)  stance?

A shorter version of this post appears in The Guardian on line, March 28, 2018.

25 thoughts on “New Zealand goes it alone.

  1. I just watched The Death of Stalin the other day, really good film. This reminds me more of some of the guys other work though, like The Thick of It, and it’s spiritual predecessor: Yes, Minister.

  2. Ah, the twin tropes of the boomer generation – solidarity with the mother country and they are all laughing at us!

    I don’t give a toss if they are laughing at us, I hope they enjoy the joke and move on. We’ll do what we think is best for us.

    I read somewhere that the number of young Kiwis going to the UK for an OE has crashed this century. That might be because the British have made it clear we are not welcome. Perhaps then the solidarity we are expected to show with Britain is in return for their steadfast refusal to throw us on the scrap heap in their selfish rush to join the E.U back in 1973? Ohhh… Well, what about the Brits and their steadfast support during the Rainbow Warrior affair? ummmm….

    Basically, the Thorndon bubble is huffing and puffing because they live in a New Zealand that is forty years out of date. White, Anglo and full of cold warriors. Wellington does that to you. Most New Zealanders don’t actually care that much about the goings on between two excessively belligerent medium powers in Europe. The Poms can get back to us about making real sacrifices (in our case, a FTA with Russia) when they do the same and do something about the billions of dirty money being laundered through London by Russian oligarchs. Solidarity, and all that.

    I have also read that one of Winston Peter’s big worries is our over-reliance on China as a single market for our goods, so he has put a top priority on a deal with Russia. From the perspective of a small, trading nation in the Pacific that makes a lot more sense than rattling our rusty letter opener in a bellicose display of faux solidarity with a declining and increasingly decrepit ex-colonial master 18,000km away in the northern hemisphere.

  3. james:

    If the government has good reasons for not joining the coalition it should say so rather than try to hide behind the “no spies here” claim. That is pretty much all that I am interested in.

  4. “…If the government has good reasons for not joining the coalition it should say so rather than try to hide behind the “no spies here” claim…”

    Ah, but that goes to the giant hole in the middle of the current NZ Labour party where it’s ideology should be.

  5. Sanctuary:

    Write me an email ( and I will tell you privately. There has been a setback.

  6. Pablo- Not really vested in this Russia issue, but would like to ask you, as an “expert” of some renown in global intelligence, what *real* evidence exists to link the Russian govt to the deaths?

    Asking this because I am always reluctant to convict or even accuse anyone of a crime without such hard evidence.


    Given the global backlash against Putin and his govt, and allowing him a modicum of ability to think and reason, why would he ever believe it was a good idea to risk all of this for the deaths of one (or two) relatively unimportant figures?

    It just doesn’t seem like the actions of a smart man.

    And of course, there are a myriad of other reasons as to why these two people may have been poisoned, and therefore innumerable suspects.

    As I said, no real skin in the argument, just curious as to why Putin has been resoundingly convicted on the grounds of a deliberate and high profile international offence, when there is such a weak case against him. And he has everything to lose and what to gain?

    Hoping you can draw on your vast experience and inarguable wisdom and put my mind at rest on these points.

  7. Based on their record of the past few decades, I don’t see why we should trust the claims of the British government (which have changed as this current affair has progressed). Then there is the fact that Britain, the US and New Zealand all engage in extra-judicial, extra-territorial targeted killing of their political opponents. So we are left with the argument that New Zealand should side with Britain because Britain is an important ally, trading and investment partner. That, however, is a moot point and the NATO powers are no longer the only states with which New Zealand must maintain civil relations. With Trump promising a trade war with China, May stirring up hostility to Russia and Israel pushing for war with Iran, it would seem a lot safer for New Zealand to simply butt out of these great (or medium) power conflicts. Isn’t that what the Labour/New Zealand First government is trying to do?

  8. Red:

    I can either put on my tin foil hat and believe that this is just another false flag operation conducted by the Zionist-Tory-Deep State-Clintonite-New World Order conspiracy to start WW3 with the last defenders of Christian Anglo Saxon values, or I can believe what former chess grand master and current dissident Gary Kasparov says: that an obvious hit like this, with its clear signature in the form of the means used, is about sending a message to Russian dissidents around the world as well as to the West. There is nowhere Russian “traitors” can hide and there is no cost too high to stop Putin from going after them. After all, this diplomatic back and forth with the expulsions is just a game, heavy on symbolism and short on substance. Putin knows there is little the West can do, and so far he has been incredibly successful with his hybrid warfare campaign against Western nations, so why should he desist? After the dust has settled on this diplomatic row, the message will still be clear.

    So, drawing on my encyclopaedic knowledge of the Deep State and pretty much everything else, I will have to conclude that in this instance the hit was in fact perpetrated by Russia.


    With NZ announcing the travel ban on all of the Russians expelled by the 27 country “expulsion coalition,” the point is now moot. It turns out that the Labour-led govt wants a bob each way: it supports the collective action with the travel ban (and thus the reasons for the expulsions) but does not incur the costs of making a stronger symbolic stand. Some might call that prudent, others might call that cowardly, but we now know that the NZ response was not about principle but about finessing a diplomatic quandary.

    The only question now is whether, in the interest of fairness, neutrality and independence in foreign policy, the Labour led govt will now impose a travel ban on all of the Western diplomats expelled by Russia. After all, they all must presumably be “undeclared intelligence agents,” and hence by definition personas non gratas in our benign domestic environment.

  9. Thank you Pablo.

    I’d like to believe that attack was carried out by Russia, but until there is hard evidence I remain skeptical.

    Look at the backlash across the world. I can’t see how Putin can view it or could ever have viewed it as a win for Russia, but never mind, I will defer to your expertise.

    Thanks again for your response.

  10. Isn’t it possible that there are no dedicated Russian intelligence agents in New Zealand? Russia has no real strategic or commercial interests here. I realise that some Russian diplomats may occasionally pass on information to Russian intelligence, and that there is a sometimes blurry line between diplomatic reporting and intelligence gathering, but it seems credible to me that Russian intelligence does not have any dedicated assets in a country that is, to Russia, not even of peripheral interest.

    To put it another way, I would not be surprised to learn Russia has no intelligence agents in Malawi, and from a Russian strategic perspective, New Zealand and Malawi are on pretty much of a likeness.

    If somebody claimed that China or the USA had no intelligence agents in NZ, then I’d be sceptical.

  11. “I read somewhere that the number of young Kiwis going to the UK for an OE has crashed this century. That might be because the British have made it clear we are not welcome…… Well, what about the Brits and their steadfast support during the Rainbow Warrior affair?”

    Do you think under-30 year old NZers are influenced in their choice of travels by the Rainbow Warrior?

    If there are declining numbers I think it’s more likely to do with reduced spending power among new uni graduates than some 30-year delayed response to the Rainbow Warrior bombing. (OE numbers were solid in the 80s when the Warrior was fresh in people’s minds). But while numbers may be declining, London is still chokka with New Zealanders – it’s only a relative decline.

  12. “… It turns out that the Labour-led govt wants a bob each way: it supports the collective action with the travel ban (and thus the reasons for the expulsions) but does not incur the costs of making a stronger symbolic stand. Some might call that prudent, others might call that cowardly, but we now know that the NZ response was not about principle but about finessing a diplomatic quandary…”

    The other thing to bear in mind was the last time we were asked to take the British on their word was when they claimed Iraq had WMDs…

  13. Sanctuary:

    One of things that keeps coming up again and again by those critical of what they think my position is on this matter is the lies about WMD used by the US and UK to justify the Iraq invasion (along with references to the Rainbow Warrior incident). I agree that given that precedent we should take the UK claims with a degree of skepticism. But as I said to Red above, on balance I am inclined to believe Kasparov’s thinking on the matter.

    Sure, May’s government is weak, the Brexit mess is bad, a diversion would come in handy, etc. But to my mind all that still would not justify falsifying a story about the attempted hit because, again, the precedent is there and it was proven spectacularly false. So why risk exposure again?

    Here too, the Russians win. Their very adroit use of Western media and cyber warfare to push their disinformation campaigns and influence operations has led to the propagation of conspiracy theories that once were the province of lunatics. The mainstreaming of “fake news” turns Mad Hatters like Alex Jones into soothsayers and seers.

    So, in this case as well as others, I try to follow Ronald Reagan’s old line:”trust but verify.” Although there is more to do in terms of verification, and I have seen the reports casting doubts on the type of agent used against the Skirpals, what I have digested to date leads me to lean towards the official narrative rather than the alternatives.

  14. Erewhon:

    Given NZ’s involvement in Five Eyes and other intelligence networks in the SoPAc, and in light of Russia’s reassertion of its forward presence in this region via strengthening of ties with Fiji and heavy involvement in fisheries exploitation, it seems unlikely that it would not have a dedicated intelligence collection capability in NZ (as it does in OZ). There is bound to be at least one OC at the embassy and I would not be surprised if Russian NOCs work here as well. NZ is more strategically important than its geographic location would suggest.

  15. @Sanc: Given the use of a chemical agent, some kind of state actor is basically guaranteed. And given who Skripal is, the only state that seems to have any reason to want him dead is Russia. It definitely passes the sniff test in a way that the WMD in Iraq didn’t. Frankly the May government doesn’t really gain anything by getting in a fight with Russia right now – it won’t make them more popular internationally or domestically.

    Pablo: I guess we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one. I don’t doubt that Russia had agents in Australia, but Australia is in another world to Russia strategically, not least because of its significant Russian expat community (NZ’s Russian expat community is very small). To me the two countries are not really comparable in this respect.

  16. “Given the use of a chemical agent, some kind of state actor is basically guaranteed. And given who Skripal is, the only state that seems to have any reason to want him dead is Russia.”

    This is nonsense. No one could even be arrested on this broad and inaccurate supposition, let alone tried and convicted on it.

  17. Long time Australian diplomat Tony Kevin, who spent many years posted to Moscow, says that poisoning could well be UK/ USA false flag operation to drive wedge between Trump and Putin. If so, it worked.

    Saw this show on Sky News Sunday morning. Series of tweets from Sky News with highlights of Mr Kevin’s comments at url below (Twitter)

  18. Hi Pablo,
    For the record, I subscribe to Occam’s razor on this one and fully think it is Russians who carried out this attack. Real politik compells me to ask though why we should be asked take a radical position that could materially affect our standard of living when the dispute is a nasty little scuffle between two nuclear armed middle powers, one a corrupt to the eyeballs kleptocracy run by a dangerous strongman and the other a culturally and politically exhausted neo-surveillance state in serious decline.

    In this instance, the diplomatic imperatives of the NZ government do not fully align with those the UK, and we acted accordingly to finess a delicate position.

    @Erewhon – when i travelled and lived in the UK in the mid 1980s the country was instantly familiar to me. Policemen and post and telephone boxes all looked the same. Renewing my visa for a eventual five year stay doing what I pleased work wise was easy peasy. Any young NZer travelling to the UK now finds a hostile bureaucracy in a barely recognisable foreign country with an ugly simmering tension just below the surface and whose sole virtue nowadays is the shared language.

    Times change, unless you are Brexiteer, for whom history appears to have stopped in 1970. To digress, I’ve been highly amused at the number of toffs the UK has sent here recently to sound out the colonies for post-Brexit deals, ex-first Sea Lord Alan West’s patsy interview about his Flashman-esque adventures on the 4th March on RNZ was hilarious. I bet the British were careful to ensure he got the breathless Jesse rather than Kim Hill. If these Brits are any guide of the UK establishment then they have little idea of how times have changed in this part of the world, despite what the white male fossils in our media seem to think.

  19. Sanctuary:

    I have to say that this comment, particularly the first paragraph, is one of the best I have seen on my threads. The reply to Erewhon was not too bad either.

    The fact remains that NZ is deeply inserted into Western security networks and needs to do a hard think about whether that arrangement continues to serve its interests. What I do not like about this episode is that we never got an explanation of the real reasons why NZ choose to finesse the deal (rather than the silly “no spies here” line). That sort of equivocation and weaselling will be noted by foreign interlocutors. In fact, the travel ban on Russians expelled by the “solidarity coalition” with no similar ban on those expelled in reply by the Russians (since presumably, according to Arden’s logic, they also are all “undeclared intelligence agents” and therefore presumably also not welcome in NZ, will be viewed as an act of cowardice rather than prudence by many other states, including Pacific island nations that are being courted by the PRC and Russia. So in the end this equivocation may be as counterproductive as it is seemingly born of timidity and a lack of principle in the conduct of foreign affairs.

  20. “…The fact remains that NZ is deeply inserted into Western security networks and needs to do a hard think about whether that arrangement continues to serve its interests. What I do not like about this episode is that we never got an explanation of the real reasons why NZ choose to finesse the deal (rather than the silly “no spies here” line)…”

    That is because there is a massive schism in New Zealand between the world view of (for want of a better term) the military/security deep state and the general security views (such as they exist in our woefully ignorant public) of the globalist neoliberal elites who largely control debate in our society. This schism translates into bad competing advice to the government from an establishment whose first rule anyway is self preservation via excessive secrecy and a parallel lack of accountability.

    Put simply, the “military/security deep state” world view still sees NZ security through the lens of WW2 and the cold war interpreted as a helpless NZ incapable of defending itself against any aggressive global threat striving for security as an enthusiastic client state of the dominant Ango-Saxon hegemonic power. Added to that, our professional military, such as it is, culturally strives to escape its marginalised existance exiled to dreary towns on the fringes of mainstream NZ society with a keen bellicosity that translates into them having never seen a US led war they are not keen to be part of.

    The general public, in the meantime, is fed a world view built on a constant diet of neoliberal free trade propaganda and a parody of a nationalistic narrative that has created an image of NZ as a sort of loveable latter day Shire, full of happy go lucky and harmless hobbits that no one anywhere would ever want to harm. Added to that, the politically powerful liberal/managerial middle class culturally loath military values and our nascent patriotism with equal enthusiasm, and therefore it seeks via it’s domination of academia and MSM to trivialise threats, emphasise globalisation and repress nationalism.

  21. The real world consequences of the schizophrenia I think exists in our ruling elites are played out everyday in way the Skripal case was handled or in the appalling state of our military procurement, where the military currently seem absolutely determined to buy the most expensive equipment possible (the air force in particular – NH-90s, P-8 Neptunes and the utterly bizarre constant reference to buying a single C-17 to replace the ancient Hercules transports) designed for high intensity combat completely integrated into US/NATO C3I in wars far, far away from our home islands when the requirement is for more and cheaper airframes for mundane tasks like SAR and fisheries protection. Because the “military/security deep state” can’t honestly justify WHY it wants expensive equipment in the face of the scorn and eye rolling of the liberal middle class we end up with grudging purchases of insufficient numbers of platforms (8 NH-90s is totally inadequate for domestic SAR and disaster relief requirements, the rumour is the number of P-8s we can afford is three, and they’ll come without any of the UAV/Drones that are required to make these aircraft effective in the ASW role while the idea of a single C-17 as our sole airlifting capacity should be laughable) to do all the mundane jobs required of them.

  22. Sanctuary:

    If the NZ government made its decision on anti-imperialist, post-colonial or non-alignment grounds, I could live with that even if remaining concerned about the repercussions from security and diplomatic partners who joined in the collective action. And even if it is siding with an adventurist authoritarian regime against the UK and other democracies, I could also live with NZ scepticism about the evidence pointing towards a Kremlin hit. But that is not what we got.

    Instead, the NZ government imposed a travel ban on the Russian diplomats/intelligence agents expelled by 26 other countries but will not expel any itself. By doing so it accepts the UK argument that the Kremlin was behind the attack on the Skripals but does not want to face the full consequences of stronger diplomatic (mostly symbolic) action. As I have said before, that is ether very prudent or very cowardly.

    To be absolutely fair and balanced, NZ will now have to impose a travel ban on all those expelled by Russia in retaliation because presumably, by the NZ government’s reasoning, they too are “undeclared intelligence agents” and NZ does not want them regardless of where they come from. If any of the people in question on either side are not undeclared intelligence agents, then the original argument given for refusing to join the “expulsion coalition” fails the basic sniff test.

    That is what bothers me most. Why not just give concrete reasons, and suffer the consequences rather than try to weasel out of a firm response either way?

  23. Sanctuary, I’m with you on your comments about military procurement. The top brass is obsessed with wanting to be part of something bigger rather than focusing on what is best for NZ.

    Pablo, if you are trying to say that this government is week willed then I 100% agree. It is hard to think of anything they are willing to fight for, other than to control the treasury benches.

  24. The words “prudent” or “cowardly” both accurately describe the conduct of successive New Zealand governments. We don’t really have to choose between these two ways of describing New Zealand foreign policy. The Rainbow Warrior affair and New Zealand’s subsequent involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were handled in similar fashion. “Prudent and cowardly” says it all.

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