Independent and autonomous to strategically aligned in New Zealand foreign policy
A Word From Afar – By Paul G. Buchanan
Analysis: Wikileaks publication of US diplomatic correspondence about New Zealand foreign policy paints an interesting picture of
the evolution of the country’s approach to international relations in the post 9/11 era, set against the backdrop of the
chill in relations between the two states caused by the unilateral New Zealand declaration of a non-nuclear policy.
Underneath the rhetorical championing of a “principled but pragmatic, independent and autonomous” foreign policy
formulated in the 1990s, the Fifth Labour government and its successor have worked hard to fully restore bilateral
relations with the US even if domestic political considerations on both sides impede them publicly declaring so. Quiet
diplomacy culminating in the 2006 “Matrix” meetings in Bangkok set the stage for the strategic partnership announced in
the Wellington Declaration signed in November this year. A US ally in everything but name and lacking only a bilateral
trade agreement to cement the relationship, New Zealand has taken a decisive step towards creating a post-9/11 version
of the ANZUS partnership that was the foundation of US-New Zealand relations during the Cold War.
The geopolitical questions that emerge from reading the leaked cables are whether abandonment of the foreign policy
stance of the 1990s is justified, and what are the costs and benefits of doing so and replacing it with a strategic
partnership wedded to a supposedly declining superpower confronted by numerous emerging great states in an increasingly
multipolar world in which military might alone cannot arrest the trend.
This is the situation: In the 1990s New Zealand painstakingly cultivated an image of honest broker in international
relations, freed from the shackles of its Cold War commitments and ethically committed in principle to the concepts of
multilateralism, peacekeeping and nation-building, non-proliferation, environmental protection and defense of universal
human rights. Revelation that the New Zealand government is in fact willing to sacrifice commitment to these principles
in order to reaffirm “traditional” security and diplomatic ties with its main Cold War allies could undermine its
credibility as a neutral and principled international actor and raises the question as to whether it has served as an
intelligence-gathering back channel when dealing with “pariah” states.
Publication of cables that detail Seoul-based New Zealand diplomats briefing US officials in Wellington on the content
of their discussions with representations of the Kim Jung-Il regime in North Korea are bound to be noted in Pyongyang
and may impact New Zealand’s previously valuable role as an interested observer of the Six Party talks on North Korean
nuclear weapons ambitions.
Revelations that New Zealand has primary signals intelligence (SIGINT)-gathering responsibilities for the Echelon
network in Fiji are bound to be noted in Beijing as well as Suva given the close relations between the two. Concerns
about Islamicist activities and China’s growing power projection into the Southwestern Pacific may be factors in the
otherwise seemingly disproportionate intelligence access granted to New Zealand by that Five Eye states during the
“independent and autonomous” period in New Zealand foreign policy (with full intelligence-sharing between the US and New
Zealand resumed in 2009).
What is certain is that be it under Labour or National governments, New Zealand’s intelligence-gathering and sharing
role on behalf of its larger partners (and France) is much more robust than what has been disclosed previously and is
bound to impact perceptions of it within the international community. Be it in diplomacy, trade or security relations,
the difference between Kiwi ruling and opposition party approaches to foreign policy in the early 2000s has been more
about tone than substance, and the substance is focused on establishing a quiet reapprochment with the US while
maintaining the appearance of independence in foreign affairs.
New Zealand foreign policy elites may have made the calculation that notwithstanding increased trade dependence on Asia,
the Middle East and other “non-traditional” export markets (some of which are rivals or adversaries of the US), the
country’s best bet against the uncertainties of the medium future lie in closer security alignment with the US and
Australia. Pragmatism or opportunism may have overridden principle in the military-diplomatic mindset after 9/11. They
may see issue-linkage between trade and security with the US, so that the holy grail of a bilateral US-New Zealand free
trade agreement is finally achieved via strengthening of military-diplomatic ties (private reservations with regards to
the benefit of a bilateral free trade agreement notwithstanding).
Perhaps the New Zealand Government sees China as less benign or honest in its intentions abroad and in New Zealand in
particular, or that the threat of regional instability and jihadism is so imminent and sustained that it requires a
bolstered Western military-intelligence response in which it must participate as a full partner. Perhaps the New Zealand
diplomatic corps are merely taking advantage of a time when the US needs all the friends it can get, and did not think
of the larger consequences if the apparently duplicitous foreign policy stance was publicly revealed.
Whatever the reasons and level of planning involved, New Zealand has cast its lot in with the US and Australia even if
the fig leaf of foreign policy independence derived from its non-nuclear stance is officially maintained (something that
the US was prepared to accept in exchange for closer ties). In fact, the non-nuclear policy and independent foreign
policy reputation provided New Zealand with leverage vis a vis its larger partner when it came to extracting favourable
concessions with regard to military exchanges and intelligence sharing: it had something that could not be given up for
international as well as domestic political purposes, and it was something that provided diplomatic cover to the
security aspects of any renewed bilateral partnership. Understanding the utility of such a cover and the domestic
considerations at play, the US no longer challenged the non-nuclear policy and New Zealand re-joined its security
The Wellington Declaration implicitly requires that New Zealand put distance on its previous commitment to UN-led
multilateralism. It means that Australian and US foreign policy objectives will mesh more closely with New Zealand’s. It
implies that the three countries strategic objectives will increasingly dovetail, which entails closer
military-to-military relations and intelligence-gathering activities down to the operational level. Increased diplomatic
coordination on a range of other subjects such as climate control or disarmament is bound to ensue. In effect, New
Zealand might retain some measure of policy autonomy on issues not central to US or Australian interests, but on matters
of common import it will be pressured into toeing their line less it lose its privileged status as a quiet security
ally. That, of course, is exactly the conundrum the Lange government faced in 1985.
As the smallest partner in the triumvirate, New Zealand will be pressed to avoid being sucked into a servile
military-diplomatic position relative to its larger cohort. Will it be able to maintain a modicum of autonomy, much less
independence in its foreign policy making? What about its international reputation as an honest broker and diplomatic
mediator? Can it continue to maintain this role in some foreign policy areas while acting as a de facto ally of the US
and Australia in others? How will nations such as China, Russia and Iran react to the news that New Zealand is not what
it seems when it comes to international affairs?
The answers to these questions are as much a function of the responses of foreign actors to the Wikileaks revelations as
it is of the will and capabilities of New Zealand and US elites to manage the fallout over them. Whatever happens,
publication of the Wellington cables has brought these questions into the public domain and raises the possibility of
informed debate on New Zealand foreign policy issues in a way never previously seen. That complicates the calculus of
foreign policy in a country where those responsible for it act as if they are impervious to public scrutiny or backlash.
For said reason alone, historians and journalists will not be the only ones thankful for the document “dump,” although
the foreign policy bureaucracy and its political master/servants are undoubtedly less inclined to view it so positively.
Such is the price for saying one thing publicly and doing another privately once the secret gets out.
Paul G. Buchanan is Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore and
founder of Buchanan Strategic Advisors, a New Zealand-based political risk, market intelligence and strategic assessment
consultancy. His article “Lilliputian in Fluid Times: New Zealand Foreign Policy after the Cold War” was published by
Political Science Quarterly in June 2010. He is a member of the Kiwipolitico
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