The Clark Government and Labour's Foreign Policy Tradition: David McCraw Puts the Labour-Led Approach to Foreign Affairs in Perspective. (Cover Story)

By McCraw, David | New Zealand International Review, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

The Clark Government and Labour's Foreign Policy Tradition: David McCraw Puts the Labour-Led Approach to Foreign Affairs in Perspective. (Cover Story)


McCraw, David, New Zealand International Review


With one major exception, the Clark government's foreign policy has so far been very much what might be expected from a Labour-dominated government. In most respects, policy has conformed to the Liberal Internationalist pattern of emphases and priorities which the Labour Party has espoused since its beginnings. The one exceptional policy has been the offer of troops to the United States in Afghanistan.

Labour Party governments in New Zealand have had a distinctive approach to foreign policy, which has its origins in the party's ideology. This approach, which is distinctive from that of the National Party, may be characterised as the Liberal Internationalist outlook on the world. In many instances, the outlook has influenced policy, but on other occasions preferences have had to be subordinated to other concerns. The constant presence of Liberal Internationalism at the Cabinet table, however, is what has made for discernible similarities between the policies of New Zealand's four previous Labour governments, and discernible differences between the foreign policies of Labour and National governments.

Liberal Internationalism is one of the two great classical schools of thought about international relations. The other is Realism. Liberal Internationalism was first comprehensively outlined by American President Woodrow Wilson in 1918. Essentially, it has four elements. First, there is the belief that a peaceful world will be encouraged by the promotion of human rights and democracy everywhere. Secondly, Liberal Internationalists think that international institutions will encourage co-operation between nations and should be supported. A third tenet of Liberal Internationalism is that arms and alliances do not promote security, but disarmament does. Finally, Liberal Internationalists believe that free trade promotes both wealth and peace among nations. (1)

The Labour Party's world view is essentially Liberal Internationalist. From its inception as a party in 1916, the Labour Party voiced support for self-determination for Ireland and for Western Samoa, and the first Labour government was to be an influential participant in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Labour Party was an early enthusiast for both the League of Nations and the United Nations Organisation, and contributed to the shape of the latter. The Labour Party began life opposed to conscription and has always been anti-militarist. The last two Labour governments were noted for their nuclear disarmament policies. The only element of Liberal Internationalism that the Labour Party did not adopt initially was enthusiasm for free trade. On the contrary, for most of its time Labour has been a protectionist party, keen to preserve the jobs of New Zealand workers. It was only with the advent of the fourth Labour government in 1984 that free trade became part of Labour's agenda, and with the adoption of this policy the party embraced all of the elements of Liberal Internationalism.

Realist approach

In contrast, the National Party's foreign policy outlook is closer to Realism than Liberal Internationalism. Realism emphasises the promotion of national interests, the greatest of which is security. Realists favour military strength and security alliances. They are sceptical of the efficacy of international institutions, and do not much concern themselves with democracy and human rights. National governments have always given high priority to co-operating with New Zealand's allies, although they have not been big military spenders. They have been noted for a pragmatic, low-key approach to human rights issues, especially when trade relationships were involved. National governments have supported the United Nations, but perhaps not as fulsomely as Labour governments. Like Labour, National has come late to espousing the virtues of free trade.

Labour's foreign policy tradition suggested that the advent of the Clark government in 1999 would bring a new emphasis on the promotion of human rights and democracy; less interest in defence ties with friends and allies and more interest in disarmament; possibly greater support for the United Nations than National had displayed, and as much interest in free trade as the last National government. …

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