Analysing New Zealand's Foreign Policy: David McCraw Replies to Criticism Advanced by Michael Bassett of His Depiction of New Zealand's Approach to Foreign Affairs

By McCraw, David | New Zealand International Review, November-December 2003 | Go to article overview

Analysing New Zealand's Foreign Policy: David McCraw Replies to Criticism Advanced by Michael Bassett of His Depiction of New Zealand's Approach to Foreign Affairs


McCraw, David, New Zealand International Review


Historian and former Cabinet Minister Dr Michael Bassett indicates in a recent article that he does not find an analysis of New Zealand's foreign policy in terms of Liberal Internationalism and Realism convincing. (1) The trouble with such categories, he says, is that objects in real life do not always fit their boxes. Both main parties were protectionist until the 1980s, and both have supported the United Nations since its creation. He goes on to say that a more convincing analysis would argue that both parties have always contained realists and idealists, although National has generally had more of the former and labour more of the latter. However, he believes that what ultimately determines the country's foreign policy are the individuals in the ascendant at a particular moment.

In order to convince Dr Bassett that an analysis in terms of Liberal Internationalism and Realism has validity, I will comment on his observations. First, while Bassett is right that no government's record is likely to be consistent with any theoretical model, it does not have to be completely consistent for a Liberal/ Realist analysis to be useful. These analytical categories are just a tool to help us understand the basic orientation of a particular government's foreign policy, and there will always be some policies which do not reflect that orientation. This is because governments respond to many different influences apart from ideology.

Nevertheless, these categories are still valuable because they explain the persistent differences between the foreign policies of National governments and Labour governments over the years, as well as the notable similarities between the foreign policies of governments of the same political colour (five Labour and four National). I have argued in this journal previously that the foreign policy differences between the parties have been such that one can validly speak of a labour tradition in foreign policy and also of a National foreign policy tradition. (2)

None of this is to deny that the parties also share a good deal of policy. Bassett cites a couple of examples of policies that the parties have in common, in order to refute the idea that Labour's foreign policy can be seen as Liberal Internationalist and National's as something else. The fact that there are shared policies does not invalidate the contention that the parties have different outlooks on the world that often produce distinctive policies. As regards the United Nations, for instance, it is true that both parties support it, but it is labour that has always put the United Nations at the heart of its foreign policy, whereas historically National has been much less enthusiastic about it. This difference can be seen as recently as the Iraq crisis, when National argued that support for New Zealand's friends was more important than toeing the UN line. National's attitude can be classed as typically realist, whereas Labour's support for the premier international institution is likewise typically Liberal Internationalist.

Bassett says that both parties contain realists and idealists. I do not doubt it, but I think he may be confusing the everyday terms 'realist' (meaning hardheaded and pragmatic) and 'idealist' with the political science terms Realist (capital R) and Liberal Internationalist. …

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