The Zenith of Realism in New Zealand's Foreign Policy

By McCraw, David J. | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Zenith of Realism in New Zealand's Foreign Policy


McCraw, David J., The Australian Journal of Politics and History


New Zealand's modern foreign policy is a blend of the Realist and Liberal Internationalist approaches to international relations, with the latter now probably being the predominant strand. This, however, was not always so. Between 1912 and 1935 New Zealand's foreign policy can be characterised as purely Realist in nature: governments were preoccupied with security, suspicious of international institutions and not much concerned with human rights. The governments that practised this Realist foreign policy were drawn from the conservative parties in the New Zealand Parliament, the Reform party and the United party. The Realist approach to foreign policy began to be challenged after 1916 by the new Labour party, which introduced a Liberal Internationalist outlook into Parliament. Liberal Internationalism, however, did not play any part in New Zealand's foreign policy until 1935, when the Labour party first came to power. It has subsequently become an important element in New Zealand's foreign policy, even during periods of non-Labour government.

The foreign policy outlooks of the parties conducting New Zealand's modern foreign policy--National and Labour--can be characterised as Realist and Liberal Internationalist respectively. (1) In the period after 1935 foreign policy alternated between periods of Realist and periods of Liberal Internationalist emphasis, depending largely on the party in power, but also on external circumstances. Although neither party in power has consistently followed one theoretical approach, and each, indeed, has incorporated elements of the rival approach into its policies, the dominant outlook of each party remains discernible, nevertheless. (2) This same phenomenon has been observed at times in the foreign policies of other countries, most notably in that of the United States, particularly under Theodore Roosevelt and then Woodrow Wilson. (3) Prior to 1935 the National party did not exist and Labour had never governed. However it is still useful to examine early twentieth century New Zealand foreign policy using the analytical framework provided by the two main models of international relations.

Realism and Liberal Internationalism are two of the most important and enduring approaches to international relations. A debate between the proponents of each began in the 1930s and continues to this day. Although each school of thought is far from homogenous and has given rise to a number of versions over the years, each school possesses some core beliefs. All Realists, for instance, see international relations as basically conflictual and dominated by the concern of states for their security. (4) Classical Realists and Neo-Realists, do, however, emphasise different causes of this, with the former blaming human nature, and the latter the anarchic nature of the international system. Realists of all stripes tend to be sceptical about the prospects for international cooperation. In particular, they believe that States should not rely on international organisations to provide their security because international organisations are not independent of the national interests of their members. Nations will only act or cooperate when it is in their interests to do so. Self-reliance is a core Realist precept. Realists also consider that the national interest must at all times take priority in a state's policy and thus idealistic or ethical goals should be a subordinate concern at best and a peripheral concern at worst. These are not the only areas of agreement between Realists, but they are the most relevant for the current study.

Liberal Internationalism, sometimes called Idealism, is the name given to the school of thought based on the ideas of United States President Woodrow Wilson, although those ideas, in turn, were based on the ideas of earlier Liberal thinkers such as Bentham and Kant. The modern variants of Liberal Internationalism, collectively known as Neo-Liberalism, tend to focus on one or other of the elements of the Wilsonian canon.

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