Realism and Idealism in New Zealand's Foreign Policy

By McCraw, David | New Zealand International Review, July-August 1998 | Go to article overview

Realism and Idealism in New Zealand's Foreign Policy


McCraw, David, New Zealand International Review


David McCraw compares the approaches to international affairs of the National and Labour parties.

The foreign policy philosophies of New Zealand's two major political parties correspond quite well with the tenets of two opposing theories of international relations. The National Party's foreign policy outlook seems closest to that of the realist school of international relations, whereas Labour's outlook fits more comfortably within the liberal internationalist, or idealist, tradition. National's outlook, however, does not fit the realist model exactly, whereas Labour's outlook is a close match with the liberal internationalist model.

Of the many schools of thought concerning international relations, two of the oldest and most influential are the realist and the liberal internationalist. Indeed, liberal internationalism may be classed as the founding theory of the discipline, with realism emerging next as its antithesis. Both of these schools of thought are, however, outgrowths of even more ancient philosophical traditions.

Liberal internationalism, sometimes called idealism, first appeared after the First World War, and was a reaction to it, although its roots are in the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Liberals conceive of nations as a global society, with more things in common than they have dividing them. To liberal internationalists, the laws of nature dictate harmony and co-operation between peoples. Peace between nations is the natural order of things, and war is an aberration. Wars are created by undemocratic governments to advance their own vested interests. When the government is controlled by the people, it will not go to war because the people bear the costs of war.(1) The best way to ensure peace is thus to spread democracy among nations.

Liberal internationalists are concerned with the international promotion of democracy and the individual rights on which it is based. They are concerned with human rights not only because they lead to peace, but because liberals by definition value individual freedom and civil liberties. One of the most striking achievements of liberal internationalism has been to make human rights a central concern of the United Nations.(2)

Second belief

A second major belief of liberal internationalism is in the potential of international organisations to regulate international behaviour. As believers in a global society and the essential harmony of interests between nations, liberals are promoters of supranational government. An early example of this was the enthusiasm of liberals for the League of Nations as the arbiter of disputes and the guarantor of peace through collective security.

Liberal internationalists also generally support organisations such as the European Community -- any body in which national interests are subordinated to the common good. As part of a bid to regulate international behaviour for the common good, liberals promote the development and strengthening of a system of international law.

The third main feature of liberal internationalism is a belief that a state's prime concern should be the welfare of its people rather than security. Security should be only one concern among many, and a concentration on it is detrimental to the prosperity of a state's people because armaments necessarily absorb scarce public resources. Liberals are more interested in promoting international disarmament than in funding military forces, and they are not enthusiastic about military alliances. In any case, liberals do not accept that the promotion of peace is assisted by a concentration on security. Peace is better advanced, they believe, by the promotion of trade links and citizen contact between nations. Inter-dependent countries are less likely to go to war with each other, as it is too disruptive. Contact will break down divisions between states and unite them into one global community. It will encourage international friendship and understanding. …

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