Facing the World the New Zealand Way: Terence O'Brien Discusses Some of the Considerations Underlying New Zealand's Foreign and Defence Policy

By O'Brien, Terence | New Zealand International Review, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview

Facing the World the New Zealand Way: Terence O'Brien Discusses Some of the Considerations Underlying New Zealand's Foreign and Defence Policy


O'Brien, Terence, New Zealand International Review


New Zealand external policy is grounded in a small country tradition. As a country without hard power, New Zealand tends in practice to favour a balance of interests as distinct from a balance of power as an operating principle for international affairs. In an era when great power confrontation has subsided, New Zealand strives to maintain accordingly an essential mix of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. It currently describes bilateral ties with Australia, the United States, the European Union, Japan, China and the Pacific Island countries as 'bedrock relationships'. At the same time it reaffirms that the New Zealand stake in effective multilateralism and the rule of international law, remains as strong as ever. (1) The absence of critical mass diminishes New Zealand negotiating leverage in bilateral dealings. It is active therefore in multilateral diplomacy, seeking coalitions of like-minded interest and supporting even-handed negotiation where agendas and outcomes are fair to all involved.

There is something of a contrast here with Australia. Balance of power is a defining principle in Australian external policy. Bilateralism is Canberra's first priority, in particular the strategic relationship with the United States. The Australian Foreign Minister has indicated that for Australia, multilateralism in the United Nations is synonymous with ineffective and unfocused policy. (2) New Zealand and Australia thus keep different international company on some key security issues like the legitimating authority of the UN Security Council, arms control, disarmament and environmental protection.

New Zealand owns soft power as one of the world's oldest modern democracies with higher levels of popular participation than most larger democracies. New Zealand has sought to elevate the principle of reconciliation between indigenous people and other citizens as a mainspring of its society. This remains a crucial national challenge but it too distinguishes New Zealand from most other democracies. On the global corruption index, New Zealand ranks in the top three or four least tainted. (3) It ranks eighth in the 2004 world list of most open globalising economies. (4) And the well respected Carnegie Endowment rated it fourth in the world for the quality of its contribution to development and peacekeeping.

Good citizen

As an economy with global, particularly trade and investment interests, and strongly committed to free and fair markets, New Zealand is concerned to maintain the warrant of a good global citizen through support internationally for peace and security, nation building and even-handed justice. This requires among other things a professional defence force structured in ways that play to New Zealand comparative advantage and needs. New Zealand threatens no other country. It has no international axe to grind and does not on the whole strive for effect. (5) It retains a capacity for impartiality.

No New Zealand government has, however, consciously sought to leverage these soft power properties into a coherent small country foreign policy role for New Zealand as a dedicated international conciliator, in the manner, say, of Norway--a country of similar size and disposition. New Zealand mediation accomplishments, especially over Bougainville, raised outside expectations of a more dedicated New Zealand commitment. This has not yet eventuated. New Zealand prefers improvisation.

The global revolution in communications technology has collapsed distance and abridged the tyranny of New Zealand remoteness. Indeed in a wired up world that is confronted by a new version of terrorism and by other multiple trans-boundary threats, the discrete New Zealand geographical location provides the country with a strategic asset, providing it is complemented with imaginative economic and related policy. The current New Zealand official foreign policy view of the country's place is, however, rather more downbeat.

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