In Other Words

New Zealand’s Security Blanket

New Zealand International Review, Vol. 27, No. 5, September/October 2002, Wellington By all indicators, New Zealand is a model international state that has pulled its weight in international affairs. It joined the League of Nations, was a founding member of the United Nations, and has been a regular contibutor to international peacekeeping. Categorizing its foreign ...

New Zealand International Review,
Vol. 27, No. 5, September/October 2002, Wellington

By all indicators, New Zealand is a model international state that has pulled its weight in international affairs. It joined the League of Nations, was a founding member of the United Nations, and has been a regular contibutor to international peacekeeping. Categorizing its foreign policy, however, has always intrigued local academics. Some, like cabinetmakers, craft boxes into which theories are stored and neatly labeled. Such is the case in David McCraw’s recent article in the bimonthly New Zealand International Review, where he analyzes the differences between the foreign policies of New Zealand’s political parties. Set against the opposition National Party’s "realism," McCraw, a University of Waikato political scientist, paints the current Labour administration in the "liberal internationalist" corner: keen on promoting democracy, human rights, disarmament, free trade, and the United Nations. The trouble with such categories is that objects in real life don’t always fit their boxes. Both New Zealand’s main parties were protectionist until the 1980s, both have supported the United Nations since its creation, and both now favor a structural review of the U.N. Security Council.

A more convincing analysis of New Zealand’s foreign policy would argue that both parties have always contained realists and idealists. National generally has had more of the former, Labour of the latter. But what ultimately determines the country’s foreign policy are the individuals in the ascendant at a particular moment.

In another Review article, Bill English, National’s current leader, calls for New Zealand to renegotiate its relationships with Australia and the United States. Realist he might sound, but English was part of a government that did nothing to change the 1987 legislation banning port entry for nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered vessels. That legislation sealed New Zealand’s exclusion from regular military exercises with the United States and Australia and reduced the quantity of intelligence Wellington receives. Even now, English doesn’t explicitly advocate repealing the law, although that conclusion surely follows from what he writes. Is he an antinuclear internationalist or just a preaching realist? I suspect he is victim to the disease of political timidity and prefers to follow public opinion on ship visits rather than lead it.

Public opinion continually influences New Zealand’s foreign policy. And opinion is confined or liberated — depending on your view — by the country’s geographic remoteness. The country’s leaders, with public support at their elbows, preach to others, whether in Washington, London, or Beijing. When they do so, they clutch the security blanket that thousands of miles of ocean throw around New Zealand’s landmass. The recent explosions in Bali might revive a sense of realpolitik. The event certainly sparked doubt about Prime Minister Helen Clark’s claim that New Zealand inhabits "an incredibly benign strategic environment." In crises such as that faced by New Zealand after Pearl Harbor, the country quickly rose to the challenge. And despite the stand-off with the United States over nuclear ships, New Zealand has been assisting the Americans in Afghanistan with a small detachment of troops for more than a year now. Each bold assertion of idealism has usually been accompanied by an insurance policy.

In a third article, Eastern Institute of Technology dean Grant Klinkum argues that New Zealanders were forced to be realistic in their foreign aid policies. In the 1950s, the country enjoyed one of the highest living standards in the world; by the 1980s, its living standard had slipped to a more modest level. Thus, New Zealand was unable to meet its aid goal of 1 percent of gross domestic product. Successive governments introduced tougher guidelines governing aid, as Klinkum outlines in his analysis of the Mekong Institute, a New Zealand-backed think tank serving the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, the Yunnan province of China, and Myanmar (Burma). The new aid policy, established in the mid-1990s under a National government and now carried on by Labour, insists on local ownership of projects and on eventual funding from local sources. The test will come when New Zealand, whose yearly economic growth has averaged 3 percent over the last decade, contemplates whether its ministrations are still needed in the GMS, where growth has been nearly 8 percent per annum for some years.

By that time, New Zealand belatedly will have revived efforts to improve its own economic performance, including removal of a key barrier to a free-trade deal with the United States posed by its outmoded antinuclear legislation. "Events, dear boy, events," to use former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s phrase, have a habit of undermining the most treasured idealism, even in remote places. Which New Zealand political party, one wonders, will take the lead?

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