New Zealand Foreign Policy: The Importance of Reputation: Terence O'Brien Reviews Aspects of New Zealand's Approach to International Affairs

By O'Brien, Terence | New Zealand International Review, September-October 2013 | Go to article overview

New Zealand Foreign Policy: The Importance of Reputation: Terence O'Brien Reviews Aspects of New Zealand's Approach to International Affairs


O'Brien, Terence, New Zealand International Review


As a small, isolated modern democracy, New Zealand lacks the economic or military power to take an assertive role in international affairs. But it makes its mark by its ingenuity in bio-technology and as a producer of high quality food and related commodities. To sustain its prosperity it depends on an effective system of rules-based international behaviour to ensure a predictable world. Values as well as interests drive New Zealand foreign policy. For New Zealand a vital part of credible foreign policy is preserving its reputation for integrity and commitment as a good global citizen. A capacity for independent judgment is an essential requirement.

Foreign policy is about how one country relates to another, and to the outside world generally. It is influenced by a need to protect and promote a country's prosperity and security. It is conditioned by external developments, over which smaller countries have very marginal influence. Such developments readily transform the balance of external interests for any country, large or small, even while, as in New Zealand's case, traditional instincts endure to preserve old familiar relationships and alignments. Foreign policy is shaped by what a country is and seeks to become, so international reputation is important. I shall come back to that below.

New Zealand foreign policy is influenced by our situation as a small, remote, modern democracy that lacks critical economic mass but by dint of much ingenuity is a leader in bio-technology and a successful producer and exporter of high quality food and related commodities, in a world where food needs are multiplying prodigiously. Predictable flows of trade, investment and technology are crucial to New Zealand. We do not possess the hard power required to assert New Zealand interests by force of arms. New Zealand foreign policy is deeply attached, therefore, to support for a system of rules-based international behaviour as the basis for a predictable and prosperous world. Values as well as interests drive New Zealand foreign policy.

Basic influence

New Zealand's colonial inheritance and the international realities of a war-torn 20th century shaped our foreign policy. They nourished a particular New Zealand psychology of dependence on a small number of powerful but distant friends (first, Britain and then the United States). Those countries provided both military protection and economic opportunity for us. That convenient marriage of New Zealand interests was, however, subverted by trade distorting agricultural protectionism habitually favoured by those powerful but distant friends. It was overtaken also by so-called globalisation of the world economy which, over the last part of the old century, broadened New Zealand commercial horizons as successful newly emergent economies, especially in East Asia, provided exhilarating new opportunity for trade and investment if New Zealand foreign policy was able to create and sustain the indispensable political platform.

We are still in the process of adjusting New Zealand foreign policy to the full implications that flow from the emerging dichotomy in our modern external dependencies. The revolution in communications technology that drove globalisation has served to tame New Zealand's remote geography by collapsing time and distance. Our geography at the same time continues to lend New Zealand valuable protection from various aberrations of globalisation--multinational crime, people smuggling, drugs, terrorism and the like.

Globalisation has stimulated the spread of multiculturalism as people and ideas transcend borders with increasing freedom. Migrants from Asia, the Pacific and elsewhere have measurably deepened the mix of New Zealand's population. Some 40 per cent of our population will be of non-European extraction in the next twenty years. This prospect sharpens our older challenge of Maori-Pakeha reconciliation as a foundation for New Zealand society. …

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