Dealing with the Reality of Small and Distant: Brian Lynch Asks How Small Nations Show Leadership and Gain Influence in a Globalised World and Why They Need To

By Lynch, Brian | New Zealand International Review, November-December 2013 | Go to article overview

Dealing with the Reality of Small and Distant: Brian Lynch Asks How Small Nations Show Leadership and Gain Influence in a Globalised World and Why They Need To


Lynch, Brian, New Zealand International Review


Unless they are blessed with significant resources in global demand or geography works in their favour, small nations struggle to have their voice heard and their interests taken into account. They must rely on the attributes of soft power to attract attention and exert influence. New Zealand was thrust into this position in the early 1970s when its primary economic and strategic focus shifted from Europe to the Asia-Pacific. The reorientation has involved a major learning experience, of unfamiliar customs and values and new ways of doing business. Priority has had to be given to working collaboratively with other small states.

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Regrettably, I suspect that few foreign governments or their advisers wake each morning and the first question they ask themselves is: 'I wonder what's bothering the Kiwis today?' This is the downside of being the only member of the OECD group of developed economies that fits the description 'small and distant'. Dealing with that reality has preoccupied me for much of my working life and likewise many colleagues in both the public service and private enterprise.

It is the unfortunate truth that seriously difficult challenges confront small nations. Their dilemma is compounded in a rapidly globalising world where integrated supply chains are blurring the relevance of national borders. The harsh reality is that big guys do not instinctively feel they owe the little fellows a living or need to afford them protection. Unless that is, a small economy has been liberally endowed with resources that are in global demand or is blessed with some other strategic asset such as being sited near major trade routes.

This means that the government of any small country has to accept that a passive approach to the outside world does not pay off. In their national interests minor players must try to assert some influence on the world stage. No matter how meagre a hand the country may have been dealt. Deprived for the most part of nature's bounty they have to find other ways that work of being listened to, of not being ignored and of having their interests taken into account. The motivation always being to receive the all-important invitation to the top table when decisions likely to affect their well-being are under discussion.

To achieve that status, small nations have to demonstrate an ability to impress when there is no scope to impose, to earn respect regardless of limited resources, and to illuminate lesser known paths that others large and small might usefully explore.

Good traits

The traits that nations display are really no different fundamentally from the standards of good conduct in personal or professional life that encourage others to hold someone in high regard, or to not do so. For example, in much the same way that humans react or respond, any nation of whatever size that short changes its neighbours or distant partners by deliberate act will sooner or later be found out and pay a price. The repercussions would inevitably fall more heavily on any offending small player.

New Zealand would need to mobilise all the resources it could muster to avoid being cast in that mould, particularly in today's world, when this country is busy consolidating a new Asia-Pacific focus of its international connectivity, and at an accelerating pace. Such refocusing is not a novel experience for New Zealand, but it has been a rare occurrence. We are not a country given to flights of fancy or rudderless conduct.

Some would argue that the notable exception in recent memory was the mid-1980s rupture of relations with the United States over nuclear ship visits. Unsurprisingly there were faults on both sides. But like any attempt to bring the aggrieved parties together after a family breakdown, the fallout from such a highly public separation took time to begin to repair, about twenty years.

A series of events in the 1970s brought about a defining period in New Zealand's development. …

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