New Zealand's Foreign and Trade Policy: Past and Present

By Nottage, Richard | New Zealand International Review, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

New Zealand's Foreign and Trade Policy: Past and Present


Nottage, Richard, New Zealand International Review


Richard Nottage looks back at percepyions of New Zealand and its foreign policy several decades ago and compares those outlooks with where things stand today.

In preparing for this speech, a dusty old tome was brought to my attention. It was a publication by the NZIIA from 1939 called Contemporary New Zealand. The description of New Zealand foreign and trade policy would bewilder any young or even not so young New Zealander. New Zealand was described by Dr J.C. Beaglehole in these words:

It is a Dominion in spite of itself. It

has not pursued with passionate

experimentation the idea of equal

nationhood; in the imperial family it is

the daughter nation that preferred not

to smoke and drink with its

emancipated sisters, that shuddered a

little and drew its garments somewhat

closer when Canada and South Africa

began to saunter on the borderlands of

the world; that fervently hoped the

day would never come when the

financial journals of London should

fail to rise up and call it blessed. For

the economic bond, in subtle ways,

appears transmogrified in terms of

politics or mind.

Well! What can I add. The days when Britain accounted for 80 per cent of New Zealand's exports and we regarded our destinies as one are long gone.

Beaglehole was not the only contributor to this study of contemporary New Zealand. Alister McIntosh, Dr W.B. Sutch, Angus Ross and Sir Guy Powles were also on the list. There was much in the NZIIA's 1939 outlook which was sound and enduring. It recognised New Zealand's dependence on secure global trade routes. It acknowledged our vulnerability and our need to have strong relationships with others in our region -- in those days this meant mostly Australia. It explored our defence capability at a time when the world was preparing for war. And its purpose, in keeping with the aims of this longstanding institute, was to stimulate New Zealanders to think about what was happening in the outside world: a goal which the NZIIA still has today and which is just as important as ever It was.

The comfortable place which Beaglehole described with New Zealand secure in the British Empire was probably already precarious by the time Contemporary New Zealand was published in 1939. I suspect many NZIIA members of the day would have felt frustrated by the isolationism which the historians tell us was a strong element of the 1930s: a feeling that New Zealand was securely distant and self-sufficient as Britain's offshore farm.

Staunch loyalty

By the time I joined the Department of External Affairs in 1962, this myth was no more than a memory. There was still a staunch loyalty to Britain but the world had changed and New Zealand perceptions and responses had had to change with it. In his excellent book, Independence and Foreign Policy, New Zealand in the World since 1935, published in 1993, Malcolm McKinnon identified seven central elements which characterised New Zealand's independent foreign policy in 1961: a belief in the Commonwealth as a framework for New Zealand's foreign relations; a belief in the United Nations; a belief in a multilateral, global, economic order rather than closed economic blocs; a belief in economic and social rather than military solutions to international problems; a belief in the possibility of peaceful relations with adversary states; a belief in the moral value of the Western alliance; and loyalty to Britain.

How valid are these basic tenets for our foreign policy in 1996?

[] A belief in the Commonwealth as a framework for New Zealand's foreign relations: The belief in the primacy of the Commonwealth was displaced to some extent in the 1940s by hopes for the newly formed United Nations as the only body capable of maintaining international peace and security. …

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