Foreign Policy in a Vacuum

By Kennaway, Richard | New Zealand International Review, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Foreign Policy in a Vacuum


Kennaway, Richard, New Zealand International Review


Richard Kennaway comments on the renewal of the debate on foreign policy and defence issues in the apparent absence of a threat.

In the decade of the 1980s there was for several years an intense debate on foreign policy and defence issues between proponents of a traditional alliance strategy and those of an alternative non-nuclear strategy, in the course of which David Lange transformed the whole orientation of New Zealand foreign and defence policy.(1) Through most of the 1990s a much more tranquil period ensued following the National Party's conformance to the non-nuclear policy. This lull can be explained partly by the apparent absence of threat to New Zealand security, whether nuclear or conventional, as well as an absence of major controversial issues during this period.

Now over the past three years, we have seen a significant renewal of the foreign policy and defence debate. There have been a number of reasons for this, including the eruption of a series of crises in the South-east Asian and South Pacific region -- in East Timor, Fiji and the Solomon Islands. Whatever the reasons, however, they have not included any resurgence of direct threat to New Zealand national security as such. It is not surprising, therefore, that the debate has taken place in something of a vacuum and has been somewhat confused.

From the 1940s to the 1980s the overall assumptions of the traditional strategy of New Zealand foreign policy were clear. The main threat was seen to come from a major power sweeping down through South-east Asia and the South-west Pacific and providing a direct threat to New Zealand with conventional forces, such as had occurred with Japan in the Second World War. There was some uncertainty about the source of the threat, which was perceived as coming successively from Japan (briefly), the Sino-Soviet bloc, China and the Soviet Union.

There was widespread consensus on the best means of conflict prevention and conflict management. This was seen as being achieved by armed deterrence and armed defence through the alliance system. The defence implications were also clear. The most important factor was that our defence forces should be compatible with those of our allies, and should be able, therefore, to participate with them in a larger force.

Compatible strategy

This strategy seemed to be quite compatible with the identity and economic aspects of foreign policy. It was compatible with New Zealand's self image as a loyal member of the `Free World' exercising influence through close relations with its allies. It also seemed to accord well with our economic interests, since our trade was still largely with other members of the Western alliance, still predominantly with Britain until the 1970s but also increasingly with United States, Australia and Japan during the currency of the alliance period.

In the mid- to late 1980s there was a very dramatic shift in the overall strategy. It was part of the originality of David Lange that this change was based clearly on a changed perception of threat. In place of the threat of a major power sweeping down through South-east Asia or the Pacific with conventional weapons, Lange made it clear that he was more concerned about a threat towards New Zealand from the proliferation of nuclear weapons as such, whether in the hands of our friends or our enemies. Even in the absence of any hostile intention towards New Zealand, there could still be a major impact not only on New Zealand's security but also on that of the South Pacific as a whole. This scenario was made more plausible by the development of scientific concepts such as Nuclear Winter, which envisaged that New Zealand and the South Pacific would not be exempt from the environmental effects of a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere.

Of course, this changed perception of threat had major implications for many other aspects of New Zealand foreign policy. …

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