The Labour Party's Foreign Policy Tradition

By McCraw, David | New Zealand International Review, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview

The Labour Party's Foreign Policy Tradition


McCraw, David, New Zealand International Review


New Zealand has had four Labour party governments, and the foreign policies of all of them have shown common features which may be characterised as a distinct Labour tradition. These distinctive foreign policy features have not been characteristic of New Zealand's National party governments.

Labour's foreign policy tradition has its roots in the party's idealism, whereas the basis of National's foreign policy tradition has been the national interest.' Although Labour governments have often been as pragmatic as National ones, and as concerned with the core national interests of security and trade, their distinctive trait has always been their strong commitment to certain ideals, which at times they have put ahead of other objectives. These ideals spring from the party's original socialist ideology, and include the promotion of social justice, national self-determination, human rights, world peace and international cooperation. The active pursuit of these ideals has given rise to the three features which are common to the foreign policies of Labour governments.

The first characteristic of the foreign policies of Labour governments has been their internationalism. Internationalist policies might be defined as those which are perceived to serve the interests of all peoples and nations, rather than just the interests of New Zealand.

The second feature of Labour foreign policy has been a moralistic approach to the world. The actions of other governments have been judged as right or wrong according to Labour's ideals, and when those actions have been judged wrong, they have often been publicly condemned.

The third feature of Labour's foreign policies has been their occasionally independent nature. Labour governments have been more ready then National ones to publicly oppose the policies of New Zealand's main allies, or to advance policies which ran counter to the interests of those allies. An independent line has not been taken for its own sake, but has been a by-product of the unwillingness of Labour governments to abandon policies which advanced the party's ideals, when those policies have clashed with the views and interests of New Zealand's allies.

Basic themes

These three basic themes appeared in the foreign policy of the first Labour government during the 1930s, and they have reappeared, to a greater or lesser degree, in the policies of Labour governments since. When the first Labour government came to power in 1935, its approach to foreign affairs revealed itself to be different to that of New Zealand governments which had preceded it. First, Labour was very committed to the internationalist ideal of maintaining world peace through the League of Nations, whereas

David J. McCraw teaches at the University of Waitko's Department of Political Science and Public Policy. previous New Zealand governments of a conservative stripe had been sceptical of the League. Indeed, in 1934 Walter Nash had wondered whether any other government in the world had as little faith and interest in the League as the then New Zealand government.(2) Labour, in contrast, pledged in its 1935 election manifesto to do everything in its power to advance the idea of international cooperation as represented by the League of Nations.(3) The Labour government went on, when New Zealand was a member of the League Council, to try to get the League to practice collective security against aggression.

Moralistic attitude

Second, the Labour government took a very moralistic attitude towards acts of aggression on the world scene, arguing that it was immoral to allow aggressors the fruits of their aggression, and that aggressors, however strong, must be resisted by the League. Other countries, which would have to do most of the resisting, had a more pragmatic outlook. Britain, anxious to avoid war, was one of these, and adopted the policy later known as appeasement. The New Zealand Labour government regarded Britain's policy as unprincipled. …

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