Oceania | Security | Oceania

New Zealand’s Defense Ministry Sizes Up the International Security Environment

Its Statement of Intent 2020-2024 provides an assessment of the country’s security environment – with COVID-19 thrown in the mix.

By Nicholas Dynon for
New Zealand’s Defense Ministry Sizes Up the International Security Environment

NATO Military Committee Chairman visits New Zealand, June 15, 2017.

Credit: Flickr/NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Published in August, the New Zealand Ministry of Defence’s (MOD’s) Statement of Intent articulates its strategy and priorities for the next four years. The Ministry’s success, according to the statement, depends on its ability to “understand and advise in changes and trends in the security environment,” and to this end the Statement of Intent delivers MOD’s first international security assessment since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Statement is being published at a time of uncertainty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” writes Secretary of Defense Andrew Bridgman in his introduction. “Although the full impact and implications will only become clear over time, the spread of COVID-19 is exacerbating a range of global security and economic challenges impacting on both our strategic and operating environments.”

According to the statement, the rapid onset and global spread of COVID-19 has placed strain on the very foundation of global security —  the international rules-based order. This is of importance to New Zealand, which, as a small trade-dependent state, regards the maintenance of the “rules-based order” as a prerequisite to its security.

Two years ago, the Ministry’s Strategic Defense Policy Statement 2018 (SDPS) identified that the single greatest threat to New Zealand is posed not by any one country but rather by the accelerating erosion of the international rules-based order. The Statement of Intent maintains this position.

“The pandemic is intensifying existing geopolitical trends and exacerbating a range of security challenges,” continues the statement. “Although the full impact and implications for global security will only become clear over time, the spread of COVID-19 has accentuated geopolitical shifts, tested the robustness of democratic governance, and increased social inequalities.”

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In terms of COVID-19’s economic impact, the statement notes the World Bank’s forecast of the worst global recession since World War II, with global unemployment expected to rise to its highest level since 1965.

“The pandemic has reinforced that New Zealand’s security outlook may be shaped most powerfully by a combination of forces increasing pressure on the international rules-based order, which will play out in newly potent ways close to home.”

Painting a stark picture pitting powerful states against smaller counterparts, open societies against closed, and indeed open societies against their own liberal traditions, it lists this “combination of forces” as:

  • States pursuing greater influence in ways that challenge international norms and at times the sovereignty of small states,
  • Challenges to open societies that threaten those states’ willingness to champion the rules-based order, and
  • Complex disruptors – including an array of impacts from climate change, technologies changing the nature of conflict, extremist ideologies, national and regional tensions, and transnational organized crime – that disproportionately affect open societies and small or weak states, and are forces for disorder.

Thus, in addition to pointing to interstate tensions, the Statement of Intent echoes the SDPS’s identification of a trend of “liberal democracies sliding into illiberalism” as posing a major threat.

“Challenges to open societies and Western liberalism, driven by increasing disillusionment with existing arrangements within these societies,” stated the SDPS, “threaten to reduce the willingness of open liberal states to champion the rules-based order.”

The statement also continues the Ministry’s framing of climate change as a key security challenge. The intensifying impacts of climate change, it states, will result in New Zealand’s neighbors being more “likely to require more humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, stability operations, and search and rescue missions in the next decade.”

“Further afield, supporting stability in the Asia- Pacific, from countering violent extremism in Southeast Asia to the de-nuclearisation of North Korea remain important to uphold regional security.”

In a further nod to the SDPS, the statement elaborates on how New Zealand might act as threats to the international rules-based order intensify. “While we will conduct some missions on our own, most Defence Force deployments will be undertaken alongside other government agencies and our international partners.”

In the 2018 document, “international partners” were described as “partners that share our values and interests,” and the Statement of Intent confirms New Zealand’s emphasis on its open and liberal values remains.

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Accordingly, the statement can be interpreted as a clear rebuke not only of authoritarian states challenging the international rules-based order, but also of worrying illiberal social and political trends within New Zealand’s traditional allies, including its “Five Eyes” partners.

Nicholas Dynon is chief editor of the New Zealand defense and national security magazine Line of Defence, and a member of the editorial board of Massey University’s National Security Journal. He has previously served as an Australian diplomat in Shanghai, Beijing, and Suva, and as an officer in the Australian Army.