Adjusting to a Changing World: Terence O'Brien Discusses New Zealand's Foreign Policy and International Governance

By O'Brien, Terence | New Zealand International Review, November-December 2010 | Go to article overview

Adjusting to a Changing World: Terence O'Brien Discusses New Zealand's Foreign Policy and International Governance


O'Brien, Terence, New Zealand International Review


Irrespective of size, a country's foreign policy is driven primarily by its endowments and by its needs, by its history, culture and national self-view. It is driven as well, of course, by changing international circumstances and in this modern world by the impacts of so-called globalisation where an epoch-making revolution in communications technology has collapsed time and distance--even for the most remote of countries. This has intensified the ease and speed with which people, ideas, transactions, financial mismanagement, crime, and trade in weapons cross borders. In international relations all this has materially increased both the opportunities and the risks.

New Zealand's absence of critical mass--its lack of strategic raw materials and its distant geography--nourished throughout the 20th century anxiety amongst politicians, advisers and sections of the wider community over our marginalisation from the affairs of the world. Two world wars deepened a New Zealand psychology of strategic dependency upon powerful nations, even while New Zealand itself by and large retained a low sense of actual physical threat, given the protections of remote geography. That psychology resulted, nonetheless, in New Zealand involvements with conflicts, disputes and foreign policy reversals of powerful nations in places remote from these shores. That trend endures to this day.

In today's globalising world marginalisation is, however, less a consequence of neglect by the powerful or the tyranny of geography. It flows rather from actual policy decisions of governments (for example Cuba, North Korea). Choice not fate marginalises countries today. The multilateral institutions that exist to support international governance in the modern world serve, moreover, to dispel marginalisation for governments that are serious-minded in international affairs. These institutions add extra dimensions to foreign policy, especially for smaller countries, while at the same time they underscore the intrinsic inter-dependence in modern international life between countries and between issues. All that serves to explain the New Zealand interest in effective multilateral institutions for international governance.

New Zealand's intangible presence on the international stage means, for the most part, that it operates below the radar screens of the powerful. Apart from the South Pacific its foreign policy is essentially reactive to external trends. Providing New Zealand cultivates nimble discernment--in both the private and public sectors--strategic invisibility is no obstacle to productive foreign policy. Indeed it can be both positive and expedient. The status of friend but not the military ally of powerful nations sits comfortably with strategic invisibility. Likewise, non-nuclear policy is both logical and respectable for a country in New Zealand's situation, in a world consumed by the dangers of the spread of nuclear weapons. Recognition of this last fact, albeit somewhat belatedly by some others, earned the New Zealand prime minister an invitation to the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April.

Economic interests

New Zealand's immediate external interests are shaped, as with many countries, by the nature of its economy. External trade occupies an important proportion of New Zealand gross national product and we are reliant upon foreign investment and technology. New Zealand traders operate in over 100 markets in the world, which is some testament to the ingenuity and enterprise of a small remote economy. Predictability of trade flows and a rules-based international trading system are critical to our wellbeing, in particular to our ability to leverage the country's comparative advantage as a farm economy that transforms grassland, efficiently and competitively, into high value protein in a food hungry world.

Yet foreign relations are full of irony. New Zealand's capacity to earn its way in the world as an efficient reliable food producer faces its stiffest challenge from those selfsame powerful nations upon whom New Zealand traditionally cultivated strategic dependency, and which have consistently pursued protectionist agricultural policies that endanger New Zealand terms of trade. …

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