New Zealand Foreign Policy: Striving for Consistency: Terence O'Brien Argues the Case for the United Nations as the Indispensable Means of Meeting Future Challenges

By O'Brien, Terence | New Zealand International Review, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

New Zealand Foreign Policy: Striving for Consistency: Terence O'Brien Argues the Case for the United Nations as the Indispensable Means of Meeting Future Challenges


O'Brien, Terence, New Zealand International Review


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New Zealand possesses no power and little influence over the vast forces that shape our modern world. Like most countries, particularly smaller ones. New Zealand is essentially reactive to external developments, nimbly shaping its foreign policy responses with a mixture of principle and pragmatism.

Nonetheless New Zealand possesses genuine global interests. The external promotion and protection of those interests benefits from predictability in international affairs. Predictability benefits, in its turn, from consistency in foreign policy but unforeseen and unforeseeable factors guarantee surprise--like the sudden end of the Cold War, the unexpected collapse of apartheid, the gruesome thunderclap of globalised terrorism or a coup in Fiji. The great effort in the 20th century to extend the scope and respect for international law was, at the bottom line, a concerted attempt to nourish consistency, predictability and rules-based international behaviour. New Zealand is strongly committed to the rule of international law, applied equally and fairly to all.

Consistency in foreign policy remains, nonetheless, a struggle for most countries, large and small. Total consistency is in any event an illusion. Foreign policy is about both perception as well as reality so that appearances and rhetoric play a part, and ambiguity can, in given circumstances, be valuable. All these peculiarities affect consistency, as will be evident from what follows. Let me examine briefly three, arbitrarily chosen, examples of foreign policy consistency in relation to New Zealand.

Nuclear issues

First, it is true, as Prime Minister Helen Clark has again recently observed, that the New Zealand nuclear free policy has become central to the country's national identity and how it projects itself to the world. (1) Yet foreign policy consistency here can be distorted by other factors, in particular now by the nature of the current so-called global war on terror. The perceived crucial need to prevent the spread into new hands of nuclear and other dangerous weapons, including missiles (so-called horizontal proliferation), has been elevated as an absolute international security priority. This has warped the nuclear security agenda because the parallel and equivalent responsibility to cease enlargement and improvement of existing arsenals (so-called vertical proliferation) and to negotiate disarmament is now conclusively ignored by nuclear weapon owning states.

New Zealand resists this distortion of the blueprint laid down in the 1968 UN Non-Proliferation Treaty, where the intrinsic link between horizontal and vertical proliferation was carefully forged by principled negotiation. With a small number of likeminded countries drawn from different regions and backgrounds and formed into a New Agenda Coalition, New Zealand now strives to restore equivalent concern and equivalent action in respect to both dimensions of the non-proliferation problem. (2) This is a hard diplomatic slog in the murky corridors of the United Nations. It attracts little public notice. The continued refusal of the nuclear weapon states to countenance any effective action on their own part is a proof also of failure, to date.

Visible quickening

The intensity of New Zealand foreign policy commitment to confronting horizontal proliferation, on the other hand, has visibly quickened in the post-9/11 era. The government has spoken out and acted, with others, resolutely against the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, and after initial hesitation became an active inner group member of the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative that aims to interdict shipments of weapons of mass destruction and missiles, and entails a mix of law enforcement, military, intelligence and diplomatic collective efforts by PSI countries.

Authentic questions remain about the lawfulness of this activity (in the case of missiles, for example, there is no international control law because the major power themselves prefer it that way).

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