With low representation in UN deployments and a lack of investment in policy think-tank firepower, former Defence Minister Dr Wayne Mapp writes that New Zealand’s foreign policy independence is starting to look a little hollow.
The 2018 Defence Strategic Policy Statement has essentially set the defence policy of New Zealand for the next three years, and well beyond, at least through to 2030. To a large extent the Statement continues the themes of the 2010 and 2016 Defence White Papers.
As forecast in these papers, particularly the 2016 White Paper, there will be a greater concentration on the South Pacific and on the sub-Antarctic region with the prime capabilities reflecting this emphasis.
However, foreign and defence policy is much more than procurement decisions that reflect contemporary concerns, it should primarily be about the basic strategic orientation of the nation. Has enough new thinking been done in that area?
The focus on the South Pacific and the Antarctic of the White Papers and the Defence Strategic Policy Statement will have widespread support. The focus on these areas is already reflected in recent procurement decisions.
The new tanker has been expensively equipped to handle the sub-Antarctic seas, including delivering fuel to McMurdo Sound. The new dive tender is a much larger and more capable vessel than was HMNZS Manawanui. The decision to buy four P8s reflects the priority that New Zealand gives to ensuring it has the most capable maritime surveillance of our region possible.
All these procurement decisions also fit nicely within the co-operative approach that New Zealand has with its traditional allies and partners. It is all valuable, but does it really strain the imagination?
Thirty years ago, New Zealand was willing to forge a new path in foreign and defence policy. Helen Clark, at that time a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committee, was one of the leaders of this shift. As Prime Minister she took a new approach to defence capabilities, building on the Foreign Affairs and Select Committee report Defence Beyond 2000.
At this point I should note that I worked very closely with Derek Quigley on Defence Beyond 2000, since we both thought the defence force of the 1990s was not well configured for the likely needs of the twenty first century.
Neither was any likely government prepared to pay enough for a modern balanced defence force. That would have required at least 1.5 percent of GDP, instead of the one percent that was actually being spent. Choices, based on utility, had to be made.
Helen Clark made those choices. The air combat force was disbanded, and the Navy was re-equipped through Project Protector for logistics and patrol tasks, as well as combat.
The decisions made at the beginning of the twenty first century have shaped the defence force over the last twenty years, covering both the Helen Clark Labour and the John Key National led governments. They will be continued under the current government.
More than thirty years has now passed since New Zealand became nuclear-free and forged what has become known as New Zealand’s independent foreign policy. The Defence Strategic Policy Statement provides additional nuance to the independent foreign policy.
In essence New Zealand remains committed to its traditional partners. In that sense the decisions of the last twenty years are reaffirmed. However, there is a more skeptical approach toward China than was evident in either of the 2010 and 2016 White Papers, which may reflect New Zealand First concerns as much as the changing balance of power in the Asia Pacific.
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Overall, there is a very high level of multi-partisanship exhibited in all three documents. That of course is a good thing. The divisive debates of the 1980s and 1990s are well in the past. But this level of consensus does raise a question, and that is one of complacency.
Has everyone become altogether too comfortable with the current framework? It does not test us, and it does not expand our horizons.
New Zealand prides itself as being a leader in peacemaking, but in truth we do precious little of it, unless there is a specific emergency in our own region, as was the case in East Timor, Bougainville and The Solomons. These did, in fact, test the limits of the NZDF.
In the first decade of this century, the total level of deployments was the maximum that was sustainable for the NZDF, particularly when coupled with the Afghanistan deployments.
New Zealand makes small contributions to a number of United Nations peacekeeping missions. Those who have been deployed on these missions serve our nation with great valour, with some of the highest gallantry decorations being awarded.
If New Zealand wanted to have a broader internationalist approach, less connected with traditional partners, then it could do much more with United Nations peacekeeping. Such an approach need not be in substitution to traditional partners and alliances. But it would reinforce a more independent approach. This is how the Nordic countries, particularly Norway and Denmark, have built up an international reputation for peacekeeping while still remaining as active participants in NATO.
Norway’s approach has been twofold. The first was directly military, with the Norwegian armed forces prioritising United Nations peacekeeping. The total numbers involved are now relatively low, being less than two hundred. However, that is ten times more than New Zealand currently has deployed, with a total of fourteen NZDF personnel deployed on UN missions as of June 2018.
The second limb of the Norwegian strategy involved critical thinking. In 1959 the Norwegian parliament established the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI). The initial staff was only two, but that has grown to eighty researchers and scholars.
The Minister of Education appoints NUPI’s Board. The researchers and fellows include active academics, secondees from the public service, and former senior officials and politicians with a background in the relevant areas of research. The Institute has a much bigger public profile and much more capability than comparable institutions in New Zealand. It has been at the forefront of establishing Norway’s international profile as a leading nation in the world of peacekeeping and peacemaking.
If the New Zealand government wants to enhance its independent foreign policy, it will have to do more than it currently does. The government will need to direct a greater role for the NZDF in UN peacekeeping missions. It should also proactively build a centre for critical thinking and ensure that there is public education for such a role. The Norwegians, in a multi-partisan way, have shown how it can be done.
Thirty years after the establishment of New Zealand’s independent foreign policy it is time to take the next significant steps. Small scale incrementalism will not be enough. With a new generation now involved in the most senior levels of politics, coupled with the independent strain that is reflected in the two smaller parties of government, the opportunity awaits.