New Zealand's Defence Policy: The Triumph of Ideology? David McCraw Comments on the Labour-Led Government's Approach to Defence

By McCraw, David | New Zealand International Review, January-February 2006 | Go to article overview

New Zealand's Defence Policy: The Triumph of Ideology? David McCraw Comments on the Labour-Led Government's Approach to Defence


McCraw, David, New Zealand International Review


Australia and New Zealand have always had somewhat different outlooks on national security, probably because of their different locations and sizes. Lately the difference has become more marked as a result of the ideology of the New Zealand government. The New Zealand Labour Party's liberal internationalist ideology has been increasing its influence on the party's defence policies over the last 20 years, and may have reached the apogee of its influence under the present government. It has resulted in a major shift in New Zealand's approach to defence. The New Zealand Defence Force is being reconfigured to focus on peacekeeping rather than warfighting. This is in contrast to the priorities of Australia, which continues a realist emphasis on preparation for unforeseen circumstances.

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Australia and New Zealand have had somewhat different outlooks on national security for some time. This has been attributed mainly to geography, in that New Zealand was more isolated from potential danger than Australia and thus gave a lower priority to defence. (1) In recent years, however, another factor has become important and that is party ideology. Whereas Australia's defence policy has been bipartisan for some time, the same cannot be said for New Zealand's. New Zealand's current defence policy is the product primarily of the liberal internationalist philosophy of the Labour Party, whereas the previous National-led government's policy owed more to a realist outlook. In Australia, both major parties have supported a realist approach to defence, so that New Zealand's current direction presents a considerable contrast. The present Labour-led coalition has taken the most ideological approach to defence of all Labour governments.

The defence policy of any government is influenced by many factors, including domestic politics and the financial situation, but it is also conditioned, even if indirectly, by the philosophy of the party in power. This philosophy, among other things, may determine what priority military spending gets among all of the calls on the government's purse. New Zealand's two major political parties have different philosophies of international relations and this has influenced their approaches to defence policy.

The Labour Party's worldview can be described as basically liberal internationalist. Liberal internationalism believes that the nations of the world have more in common than differences between them, and thus the potential for co-operation between nations is high. To liberal internationalists, war is an aberration in the natural order, caused usually by unrepresentative governments or flawed social systems. A peaceful world can therefore be secured by promoting democracy, human rights and social justice. It can also be advanced by disarmament and the end of military alliances, as well as by support for international institutions. Liberal internationalists tend to see military forces as draining away money that could be better used on the people's welfare.

A liberal internationalist defence policy, then, is one that is generally optimistic about the possibility of preserving peaceful relations between states through diplomacy and trade; opposes spending on military forces and keeps it to a minimum; favours disarmament agreements; dislikes military alliances, and supports the security role of the United Nations.

Anti-militarist party

The Labour Party's outlook fits the liberal internationalist template well. Labour has been an anti-militarist party since its founding in 1916, and it has always supported the strengthening of international institutions for conciliation and arbitration. Labour's defence policies, however, have not always been able to follow a liberal internationalist course, usually because of the international situation.

The National Party's traditional outlook, on the other hand, is much closer to the realist conception of international relations. …

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