The New Zealand Labour governmentâ€™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 Zealandâ€™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 Putinâ€™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 Ardernâ€™s claim that there are â€œno undeclared Russian intelligence operativesâ€ 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 â€œMelian Dilemmaâ€ 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 standâ€”particularly amongst its friends.
New Zealandâ€™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 â€œnormalâ€ 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 Zealandâ€™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 â€œindependent and autonomousâ€ foreign policy credentials after nine years of the previous governmentâ€™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 Putinâ€™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)Â stance?
A shorter version of this post appears in The Guardian on line, March 28, 2018.