Facing a Global Kaleidoscope of Uncertainty: Terence O'Brien Discusses the Ardern Government's Foreign Policy

By O'Brien, Terence | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2018 | Go to article overview

Facing a Global Kaleidoscope of Uncertainty: Terence O'Brien Discusses the Ardern Government's Foreign Policy


O'Brien, Terence, New Zealand International Review


As Jacinda Ardern's government looks outward a kaleidoscope of extensive change permeates the world landscape. The impacts of the presidency of Donald Trump in the United States and the fall out in Europe and more widely from the United Kingdom's Brexit decision feed multiple uncertainties. Crisis and disorder continue to brutalise the Middle East. North Korea threatens to employ newly acquired nuclear weapons, but developments in the wake of the South Korean winter Olympics suggest a new episode is in the making.

On top of all else, the rise of Asia, especially of China, continues to shape the global economic landscape as well as New Zealand's prospects, as it also rearranges the international pecking order. And much closer to home, increasingly self assured, independent and assertive Pacific Islands leaders perceive New Zealand, and Australia, in a changing light at a time of real social and environmental adjustment (especially climate change) within the region, and of the presence there of other outside interests.

Any snapshot right now of the way things are involves much guesswork and almost certainly merits quick dispatch into the dustbin of history. New Zealand has, of course, minimal influence in shaping the external landscape. It journeys internationally below the radar screens of the powerful. While it is undeniable small countries must always strive for fitting relations with the powerful, New Zealand has learnt under a succession of governments that impalpable status backed by authentic soft power--as a small, law abiding, unthreatening democracy--plus nimble footwork (politically and commercially) and avoidance of megaphone diplomacy, confer scope for independent thinking and manoeuvre in the modern world.

It also, of course, prompts a search for coalitions with likeminded countries. In practice, that often means New Zealand keeps company with different countries at different times on different issues. New Zealand international relations are more multifaceted than in earlier and different times when we were a loyal, dependable but distant extension of the trans-Atlantic world. Then we feared marginalisation. But in the modern world marginalisation is an act of perverse choice, not the inevitable fate for a small internationally minded country. The need to possess and consistently cultivate external relations machinery fit for purpose is vital.

US position

A brief look at the wider picture sets the tone. Over the past fifteen weeks the United States has released either side of Christmas three grand policy documents, the first of the Trump presidency --the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and the so-called Nuclear Posture Review, which defines American nuclear weapon policy. In combination these proclamations present a decidedly dark American view of present destiny.

They depict 'an extraordinarily dangerous world'. They specifically dismiss the idea of a community of nations striving through international institutions for mutual benefit. They assert that reality in the world is one where large nations are competing strenuously for advantage. The United States is determined to master that challenge and assert forceful leadership through yet further expansion of formidable military supremacy; and through robust competition in financial, economic and trade institutions and by bilateral action, including trade protectionism to restore fairness because the United States has been exploited by others taking unrequited advantage of US prosperity and security. Sections of the policy resonate with the doctrines of President George W. Bush, which, for example, characterised the multilateral system as the refuge of the weak, asserted that international security depends upon whether one is for or against America, and elevated the operational practice of 'preventive war'--epitomised by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, still the source of so much present strife in the Middle East. …

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