The term “second image” in international relations theory refers to an argument about the domestic sources of a nation-state’s foreign policy. The argument posits that it is the nature of those domestic sources that determines the way in which nation-states perceive and approach foreign policy. Conversely, the phrase “second image reversed” refers to the international/foreign influences on domestic politics in individual nation-states, arguing that the type and extent of foreign influence in a nation-state has a strong impact on the nature of its domestic politics. These notions have been offered in order to explain the differences between authoritarian versus democratic foreign policy-making as well as the impact of power differentials, propaganda, misinformation and disinformation on public perceptions of foreign events as well as on the very nature of political life in targeted countries (such as is claimed to be the case with Chinese influence campaigns in places like NZ). One side sees domestic politics shaping the broad contours of foreign policy; the other sees international events and influences framing the nature and conduct of domestic politics and local approaches to foreign policy.
Both views can be true and co-exist at the same time. The way in which domestic politics influences foreign policy-making can in turn be informed by foreign influence and intervention in domestic politics. Again, the way Chinese interests have influenced political and economic elites in NZ (covertly or overtly) has had a clear impact on the way NZ has approached the PRC as a foreign interlocutor. Academic Anne-Marie Brady has written extensively about PRC use of “magic weapons” such as influence campaigns in NZ and elsewhere, but one only need think of former politicians like Jenny Shipley, Don Brash and John Key sitting on the boards of a Chinese bank and companies with NZ interests to understand how reversed second imagery works.
The second image aspect of foreign policy-making is particularly noteworthy in NZ because of its one-sidedness. As mentioned above, there is plenty to suggest that there are numerous foreign influences helping shape NZ foreign policy-making. Some are legitimate and open in their presence, such as NZ membership in various NGOs, treaties and conventions with binding rules governing standards of behaviour by members, as well as in NZ’s abiding by international norms and conventions when it comes to things like domestic labour laws, environmental regulations, intellectual property and patent rights, emissions trading schemes, various health, welfare and safety standards and the like. Others, such as PRC “sharp power” direct influence campaigns, are more opaque in nature and often unrecognised or unacknowledged by those on the receiving end of them. Whatever form it may take, it is widely recognised that in NZ the reversed second image is very present when it comes to foreign policy-making.
Less so is the second image itself. The NZ foreign policy community is small, with a select number of academic and private sector actors joining government officials in shaping the country’s approach to the outside world. Public involvement in foreign policy is minimal and the political class treat it as if it was rare earth. Not surprisingly, in this year’s election campaigns discussion of foreign policy has been conspicuous by its absence. With some exceptions noted in outlets like Newsroom, the Spinoff, 36th-Parallel.com and the works of people like Matt Nippert, Gordon Campbell, Selwyn Manning and David Fisher, much of this is due to the corporate media’s focus on controversy and gotcha moments rather than on in-depth analysis of substantive issues of any sort, much less those involving foreign relations. NZ based academics like Robert Patman, Rueben Steff and Van Jackson all write thoughtfully about foreign policy matters, to include aspects of NZ foreign policy, but their contributions in the media are (often self-) limited and do not inform campaign or political party policy coverage (as far as I know).
Political parties are not saying much either. Except National, parties have offered short–sometimes very short-– manifestos (thanks to The Spinoff for collating them), and interestingly the Greens have the must robust policy platform, even if in a touchy-feely, tree-hugging, climate-centric sort of way. For its part ACT just wants to increase defense spending and buy more ships, planes and guns because that is what the BIG BOY ALLIES DO, while NZ First as well as ACT want to ignore/withdraw from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (ACT says ignore, NZ First says withdraw, so it is a matter of conjecture as to whether ignoring is better than withdrawing from a legally non-binding Declaration that NZ initially opposed but eventually signed up to).
Te Pati Maori are all about increasing support for Pacifika leaders and not much else, while Labour is pretty much all about trade, trade, more trade, more trade involving Maori and the derivative issues from trade (such a patent and intellectual property rights). Focusing on the blue rinse plate special, Winston and his motley crew of racists (increasingly shared with ACT), anti-vaxxers and QAnon believers want to move the Naval base from Devonport to Marsden Point. The Greens oppose AUKUS, South Pacific militarisation and support using the military for climate change mitigation purposes. Te Pati Maori have nothing much to say about Defence, nor for that matter does Labour in its campaign documents (as much as I have seen of them). Interestingly, no party speaks about intelligence issues in spite of the recently released reports advocating for intelligence community reform in the wake of March 15 and the rise of domestic white supremacist and other forms of seditious extremism. National is especially distinguished because it has nothing much to say on any foreign policy position, but if I was to hazard a guess as to what it may be, I reckon that it would be “more of the same” with a “please be nicer to the PRC” spin added to it. (NOTE: I stand to be corrected if Labour and National have put out comprehensive foreign policy platforms but so far I have not found any when doing cursory searches).
To recap: foreign policy is woefully underrepresented in the current election campaign, much as it was in previous elections. While NZ gets the second image reversed treatment in spades, the domestic sources of foreign policy are limited to a handful of foreign policy elites who in large measure appear to be unchecked by and do not receive significant policy directives from the government and political class of the day. Instead, it is the other way around.
Although foreign policy has always been the province of elites in most countries due to the requirements of educational backgrounds, international knowledge and experience, added to the necessities of maintaining consistent diplomatic relations across home and foreign governments over time, in NZ this is worrisome because the public has virtually no input, via civil society organisations, lobbies or political parties themselves, into foreign policy perspectives and decision-making processes. For example, much is said about (and I have argued against) the notion that NZ has an ‘independent” foreign policy. But how is that informed by domestic agents and interests? Certainly not by public referenda or informed consent voiced in elections. Certainly not by academic debates about the theoretical and practical meanings of the term “independence” in foreign policy. Certainly not by community public hall forums. Certainly not by journalistic challenges to the official line.
Economic elites may have an inside track in foreign policy-making and even work hand-in-glove with Foreign Ministry officials to ensure that trade-centric policies are the core of NZ’s international position regardless of who is in government and what NZ proclaims on other matters, but who else gets a look in? Academics? Perhaps a chosen few (certainly not this ex-professor). Consultants? (Likely more than a few, usually retired diplomats or military officials, and again, certainly not this one). Lobbies (certainly, but in very limited and exclusive numbers). Religious organisations? Unions? Environmental Groups? Human Rights Organisations? Sadly, although these latter groups may have a presence on the home front, their input into the foreign policy process can be considered to be largely negligible.
The hard truth is that foreign policy making in NZ is made by a relatively small group of bureaucrats and well-connected, self-interested private sector insiders and interest groups largely unchecked by the political elite, much less public opinion. They have little accountability of a vertical sort, and even less on a horizontal level (i.e. accountability to their political overseers’ and the public, on the one hand, and to other State bureaucracies on the other). That poses a problem because horizontal and vertical accountability of public agencies is considered a hallmark of liberal democracies. They answer to the public, to politicians and to each other. Unfortunately, in NZ the foreign policy elite largely do not.
This is problematic because of the syllogism involved. If we accept a) that in NZ the second image reversed phenomenon is very real, with foreign influences having a significant impact on foreign policy elite perspectives and decision-making; and b) that little second image input goes into NZ foreign policy-making outside of a small group of overlapped and interconnected elites that are largely unaccountable to anyone but themselves; then c) NZ’s foreign policy is shaped more by foreign-influenced elite perceptions and interests than those of the voting public at large. In an autocracy this would be the normal state of affairs, but for a liberal democracy it is a concerning issue, to say the least.
Perhaps as the election campaign moves closer to decision day there will be more robust discussion of foreign policy issues, including those related to intelligence, defense and international security. Perhaps there will be debate on whether NZ is truly independent or not, whether the trade-centric focus is still fit for purpose, and what NZ’s approach to Great Power competition should be in an era of increased multipolarity and broadening of areas of contestation in regions such as the South Pacific that were once thought to be “benign” strategic environments. But as things stand that seems unlikely, and instead we will be treated to an endless series of stories and debates about which party and candidate sent out the meanest tweet, who got caught out telling porkies and who dog-whistled the most in order get media click-bait coverage.
If so, that is not good enough.