For several decades under Labour and National-led governments New Zealand has claimed to have an independent (and sometimes autonomous) foreign policy. This foreign policy independence is said to be gained by having a “principled but pragmatic” approach to international relations: principled when possible, pragmatic when necessary. More recently NZ foreign policy has shifted from traditional diplomacy in which trade was a component part to a trade focused orientation to which all other aspects of diplomatic endeavour are subordinated. Seen as a marriage of belief in Ricardian notions of comparative (and now competitive) advantage with a pragmatic understanding that NZ is dependent on trade for its survival and prosperity, the “trade for trade’s sake” approach continues to reign supreme to this day.
It turns out that foreign policy pragmatism or principle may no longer obtain in certain instances, especially when trade is involved. Take the issue of NZ military-related exports. It has been revealed that NZ firms and (possibly) public agencies export everything from airplane parts to small arms, explosive ordinance, training simulators, muzzle flash suppressors, missile guidance systems and artillery range finders to 41 countries and territories. (The term “possibly” is used here because all of the NZ exporting entities are redacted in the export list made public by MFAT. While some private exporters can be broadly identified by the nature of the items sold, other special license categories make ambiguous the provenance of the equipment in question).
Most of these exports go to NATO members and other liberal democracies, while other recipients are regional partners like Singapore, Malaysia , Australia, Tonga and Indonesia. The bulk of what is exported is what might be considered to be on the soft rather than sharp end of the so-called “kill chain:” items that do not impart lethal force directly but which contribute to the accuracy and lethality of weapons systems that do.
None of this would be controversial if it were not for the fact that some of the recipient countries have checkered human rights records (like Indonesia) while others have outright dismal histories of authoritarianism and military criminality. That includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and the PRC. Saudi Arabia and the UAE lead a coalition of Sunni Arab states that have been credibly accused of committing war crimes and genocide against Houthi populations in Yemen. Saudi Arabia does not recognise the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the UAE was not party to the UDHR vote) and along with the UAE does not recognise a number of human rights conventions involving women’s rights, labour rights, political and social rights. Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia also are not party to the UDHR and while not as dismal as the Sunni oligarchies, have subpar records when it comes to adhering to international human rights norms and agreements. NZ exports military training material to the PRC, whose human rights history is known for all the wrong reasons. There are other dubious recipients but the issue is clear. In spite of claiming to be a champion and defender of human rights as a matter of principle, NZ exports military equipment to egregious violators of human rights both at home and abroad.
Some will argue that NATO members and other democracies like Australia also violate the laws of war and human rights in their own territories. There is merit to those arguments. But the difference between Australia, Canada, the UK and US and, say, Saudi Arabia and the UAE when it comes to military conduct in conflict theatres is that war crimes committed by the forces deployed by liberal democracies are exceptions to the rule and are punished (even if initially covered up) rather than systematically encouraged and later denied. Domestically, while systemic racism clearly exists throughout the liberal democratic world, it is no longer genocidal in nature even if in previous eras there was a significant element of that.
Conversely, places like the PRC systemically abuse human rights at home, deny individual and collective rights as a matter of course and treat ethnic and religious minorities as if they were foreign enemies. Turkey has grown increasingly authoritarian under President Erdogan, with its treatment of its Kurdish minority a particularly black mark on its record. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are known for their mistreatment of foreign workers, Shiia Muslims in particular but not exclusively. Jordan and Bahrain, other recipients of NZ strategic license exports, are Western allies but not known for their adherence to human rights conventions.
Even Israel, a supposed liberal democracy and a Western ally that is another recipient of NZ military-related exports, systematically violates the rights of Palestinians inside and outside of its recognised territorial limits, including targeting of civilian populations during times of conflict (in Gaza) and forcibly annexing Palestinian territory (in the West Bank) as part of an expansionist doctrine that seeks to eventually expel Palestinians from what they and Israelis consider to be their homelands. Within Israel, in spite of recent electoral gains by so-called “Arab” (Joint List) parties, Palestinians are more often seen and treated as a subversive fifth column rather than full citizens (Arabs make up around 20 percent of the Israeli population).
Most liberal democracies simply do not act this way. The West may be guilty of many things, particularly during the colonial era and Cold War, but even if flawed most liberal democracies at a minimum pay lip service to the rule of law based on civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad. A fair number of the recipients of NZ strategic exports in recent years make no such pretence.
None of this would matter if NZ had a realist approach to foreign policy that was completely pragmatic in orientation based on national self-interest. Matters of principle would not factor into foreign policy-making and trade relations. But that is not the case. Instead, NZ is a very vocal defender of small state and minority rights in the international community as an extension of its championing of international human rights, international norms and the rule of law. That makes trading with authoritarians somewhat hypocritical and exporting military equipment to murderous regimes downright reprehensible. Especially when done for a buck–that is, for the profit gain of NZ private firms.
To be clear, almost any hunting-related equipment can be converted for dual use military purposes. But there is much more to the NZ export list (released by MFAT to a couple of investigative reporters under OIA requests) than converted hunting equipment. It also is interesting that most of the redactions in the sanitised export list are justified on commercial sensitivity rather than national security grounds. If items were merely dual use conversions from hunting equipment, one would think that there are little commercial sensitivities involved given the global scope of the hunting industry. Nor are end users always identified on the list, which makes MFAT assurances that it knows what is ultimately being done with the exports somewhat disingenuous. Either it knows and does not want to say or it does not know even though it allowed the export license request for those items to be approved.
Consider this example. MFAT approved the sale of a general utility aircraft from a Hamilton-based aerospace company (now bankrupt) to a PRC-based aviation firm in spite of numerous concerns about the end use of that aircraft. A year or so after the sale went through the plane was photographed at an airshow wearing North Korean military livery, sparking an investigation into how international sanctions on North Korea were circumvented in the process (the sanctions violation was considered a first order offence given the military use of the aircraft). In the legal process that followed, which resulted in the conviction and fining of the Hamilton firm for violating the international sanctions regime and NZ strategic export requirements, MFAT admitted that it had no clue as to who the end user might be beyond the PRC firm that, incidentally, owned a half interest in the Hamilton company and controlled its board of directors. In other words, it took the exporter’s word as an article of faith and as a result contributed to an egregious violation of UN sanctions that NZ voted to support. Diplomatically speaking, that tarnished NZ’s reputation because neither principle or pragmatism, much less due diligence, was applied to the sale.
Even training equipment has to be considered in proper context. Artillery range finders used for training purposes (which MFAT claims was the case with Saudi Arabia) are being used to train artillery for war, not fun and games. Saudi artillery is regularly used in the Yemen civil war, so it a stretch to say that exporting equipment that trains troops to be more accurate with their artillery fire is not related to the Yemeni conflict. Likewise, even if small in terms of numbers and monetary value, exporting sidearms and squad weapons to human rights violators ignores the fact that they could be used against domestic populations and foreign civilians as well as foreign adversaries.
Again, none of this would be of concern if NZ did not proclaim itself to have an independent foreign policy based on principle as well as pragmatism. If it was a country powered by a military-industrial complex such as the US, it would all be in a day’s business to export military equipment to assorted nefarious regimes. But not so NZ, which has staked its international reputation on being an agent of honest virtue–a good global citizen, as it often says.
The truth is different. If NZ was truly independent it could resist the pressure to act as a cut-out or front for its allies’ military-related services (say, by not allowing the national airline to serve as a sub-contractor for the reconditioning of Saudi Navy gas turbines usually serviced by US Navy contractors). It could pick and choose about when to be principled and when to be pragmatic when it comes to military-related exports (say, by exporting to NATO or liberal democratic partners only). After all, although clearly lacking any basis in principle, it is really pragmatic for NZ to sell the Saudis and Emiratis military equipment when they are involved in industrial-strength war crimes in pursuit of a genocidal campaign in a neighbouring country? Will the diplomatic benefits of courting such states outweigh the costs of making its rank hypocrisy visible to the rest of the international community?
In a past life I was involved in the decision-making chain involved in US military sales and training, etc. to Latin American countries. The primary criteria for vetting military equipment and training requests was twofold: the nature of the equipment or training requested and the character of the political regime (government) making the request. If the equipment or training was too sensitive or excessively lethal and/or the regime doing the requesting was of dubious disposition, then the request was denied. If the decision was anything other than an outright “no” on the primary grounds, then other criteria was applied: state of trade and diplomatic relations with the requesting state, the geopolitical balance in the (sub) region in which that state was located, the possibility of a domino proliferation impact, the presence of other foreign weapons suppliers as substitutes for US exports, etc. Once all of this was factored in with input from the various elements of the inter-agency consultation process (involving the State Department, CIA, NSC, Treasury, Commerce and other federal agencies with a potential stake in the matter), sometimes after sounding out other countries in the region about their reactions, a recommendation was sent to the White House for approval/denial. If the White House approved the sale/mission, then the recommendation was sent to Congress for approval, something involving several committee votes and then a general vote in both Houses. The process was slow and circuitous but in the end it was comprehensive and transparent.
Although it is possible that there are similarly robust weapons exportation strategic license vetting protocols in place in NZ, that does not seem to be the case. MFAT appears to make the call, perhaps after consultation with DPMC and/or Cabinet. Parliament is not involved in the decision-making process. No public notification is made. In other words, the entire NZ strategic export licensing regime is opaque at best. You can read the official criteria here.
MFAT says that the vetting process is rigorous and that it knows exactly where NZ sourced military equipment winds up. Yet it has only denied one out of 254 special export license requests in the last three years (to the Saudis for mortar stands and fire control (observation tower) equipment, supposedly in response to the Khashoggi murder). If foreign policy principle were involved, one might expect that the approval rate would be somewhat lower for authoritarian-ruled countries. But if pragmatism and trade are the criteria in play, does it make sense to supply murderous regimes with any kill chain components? Or is the fact that the entire decision-making process for granting special export licenses is so opaque that MFAT and the suppliers thought that they would never be found out if it were not for the good work of a couple of intrepid reporters?
More than principle and pragmatism as guideposts for foreign policy, it seems that trade-promoting expediency is the new normal in NZ foreign affairs, something that continues under the Ardern government. But with expediency comes a loss of independence and autonomy as well, because among other reasons, states with their own agendas can use NZ’s trade zealotry as third party cover for transactions they themselves may be reluctant to admit publicly (even the US has suspended weapons sales to Saudi Arabia because of its behaviour in Yemen). Or authoritarians can hold non-military trade relations with NZ hostage to the provision of military equipment. Either way, that makes NZ a foreign policy tool of others rather than an honest broker in international relations and global good citizen.
Just like the fact that NZ’s “clean and green” image is more myth than reality, the foreign policy reality is that at least when it comes to trading in the paraphernalia of death, NZ is unprincipled, hardly pragmatic and dominated by logics of trade expediency rather than a commitment to the upholding international human rights. While it would be too much to expect a National-led government to put principle before trade expediency, that this continues to occur under a Labour-led government (in which the Prime Minister claims that she was unaware of the strategic export recipient list until asked about it by the media) is all the more outrageous given its constant repetition of the “independent, principled but pragmatic” foreign policy mantra.
If NZ is to regain a semblance of integrity in diplomatic circles, its foreign policy decision-making matrix must change away from trade obsessed expediency and towards the principled but pragmatic orientation that grants it the independence that it claims to have. Conversely, if it wants to put trade before everything else, then it might as well fess up and open up the country’s foreign policy to the highest bidder.