Re-Thinking New Zealand’s Independent Foreign Policy

Recent Features

Features | Diplomacy | Oceania

Re-Thinking New Zealand’s Independent Foreign Policy

To evaluate whether Wellington’s shift toward tighter defense cooperation is truly abandoning a long-held tradition, first we must ask what an “independent foreign policy” really means.

Re-Thinking New Zealand’s Independent Foreign Policy
Credit: Depositphotos

In the eyes of many politicians and analysts Aotearoa New Zealand’s “independent” foreign policy is being undermined. Critics argue that closer security arrangements with Australia and NATO as well as the possibility that New Zealand will join Pillar II of AUKUS would reverse the country’s ability to chart a pragmatic self-determining approach in its foreign policy.

Recently, former Prime Minster Helen Clark and former National Party leader Don Brash put aside their historical animosity to argue that a decision to join AUKUS would “abandon our independent foreign policy in favor of unqualified support for America’s ‘China containment policy.’” They accused New Zealand’s current government of deciding to “throw in our lot with America’s attempt to slow China’s economic rise and keep it tightly hemmed in by American forces.” Various members of the opposition Labor Party have similarly argued against a New Zealand presence in AUKUS, describing the pact as an attempt to “wedge” China and a trade threat.

For these commentators, such actions are a regrettable (and dangerous) ideological reflex by the current conservative National government to return New Zealand to its traditional stifling security relationships, whose policies are singularly premised on the containment of Chinese power in the Pacific. As Clark noted during her April 2024 visit to Wellington, under an “independent foreign policy” it is the government’s job to navigate relationships with both China and the United States, “and not act in ways which support polarization and support a view that one side is driving tensions.” The policies, baggage, and implications of increased defense cooperation are seen as ill-suited to New Zealand’s present economic and security situation as a small Pacific state. 

Given the politics and rhetoric revolving around Pillar II of AUKUS, along with the current government’s seeming inability to adequately articulate its position, it is unlikely that there would be a clear-eyed analysis of deeper security cooperation. Instead the question of whether such re-alignment is desirable or not often descends into a peroration on the “tradition” of lining-up with historical allies or ethical superiority of New Zealand’s non-discriminatory trade policy, its anti-nuclear policy, and the South Pacific focus that has been the grundnorms of an “independent” foreign policy since the Lange government in the 1980s. 

Nevertheless, what exactly is New Zealand’s “independent” foreign policy and how do the elements of the policy fit the international context? 

New Zealand’s initial forays into international affairs started with the signing the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 under the auspices of the British Empire. It was a founding member of the League of Nations. Under the League, New Zealand was assigned a mandate for the former German colony of (western) Samoa, which it ruled until Samoan independence in 1962. At this time, New Zealand’s foreign policy hewed closely to the British Empire, and then the United States after World War II. Its Western orientation was evident in its involvement in the Malayan Emergency, the Vietnam War and the Five-Power multilateral Defense Agreements (Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom), the ANZUS pact and GATT.  

However, the pro-Western orientation was tempered by a strong commitment to the United Nations, collective security, and liberal internationalism, which policymakers felt was protective of smaller states and trade. Prime Minister Peter Fraser, one of the few world leaders who participated in the 1945 San Francisco Conference that established the United Nations, argued passionately against the Permanent Member veto in the U.N. Security Council. 

Over the course of the 1960s, changes in domestic attitudes toward race and immigration, Maori activism, recognition of the New Zealand/Aotearoa exceptionalism under the Treaty of Waitangi, as well as the growing disillusionment with the U.S.-led Vietnam War gave rise to new normative and policy perspectives. These rejected bipolar Cold War mentalities that underpinned much of post-World War II Western security policy. Changing security perceptions were paralleled by economic challenges that resulted from the British accession to the European Economic Community with its consequent loss of markets for New Zealand agricultural products and the increased non-viability of New Zealand’s post-war controlled economy. 

The Lange government’s decision to embrace neoliberal economic policies and a non-ambiguous nuclear-free policy established an additional basis for policy innovation. The non-nuclear policy, which was entrenched by U.S. bullying, the continued French nuclear testing at the Moruroa Atoll, and the bombing of the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland, led to the dissolution of ANZUS.

At the same time, New Zealand gained an awareness of the wider range of security, economic, and environmental challenges. As a small trading nation, policymakers sought to expand trading opportunities and a rules-based international trading and investment regime. New Zealand has worked hard to lower trade and investment barriers with China as an important aspect of deepening its economic relations with Asia generally. It was the first country to agree to China becoming a member of the WTO, it was the first state to recognize that China has a market economy (the United States and most European states have not); and it was the first developed country to enter into a comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA) with China. New Zealand supported the deepening and expansion of the World Trade Organization and sought to create a Pacific-wide trading regime through the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

The independent foreign policy has several elements. First, as a small power New Zealand supports and works within international organizations such as the WTO and the United Nations. While there is a ready recognition that there are many states which fail to uphold the international rules-based economic and security order, the continued commitment to a rules-based order is considered crucial to prosperity and security. 

Related to this is the idea that New Zealand, as a liberal free-trading nation, is committed to the fundamental importance of transparent, open, and non-discriminatory trade and investment relationships. Put another way, New Zealand will not condition trade and investment relationships based on normative or geostrategic considerations unless such considerations are adopted by the international community. These policies are reflected in New Zealand FTAs. 

Second, New Zealand rejects the presence and use of any type of nuclear power or nuclear weapons. The nuclear-free commitment underscores the clear threat that nuclear power and weapons pose for humanity as well as demonstrates the efficacy of normative considerations for non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, and the re-imaging of security arrangements, especially in the Asia-Pacific.

Third, New Zealand continues to foster a close economic and security relationship with Australia, but will participate with other states such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States in military and intelligence activities, such as the Five Eyes Intelligence Agreement. 

And fourth, New Zealand perceives itself as an engaged honest player among the Pacific Island states, and has sought to assist these states as they address climate change, environmental degradation, less than adequate governance and consequences of great power confrontation. 

The policy successes – including the rise of the global nuclear-free movement, the Rarotonga Treaty, the integration of the Chinese economy into the global economy, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and the enhancement of Indigenous and human rights – are significant. For many people the ideas have become part of the New Zealand/Aotearoa national identity. Yet the need to re-evaluate security relationships with Australia and other Western states signifies an appropriate response to changes in the international environment. Liberal internationalism and democracy are clearly under threat. It is important that New Zealand support and join those states who continue to support liberal internationalism and a rules-based order. 

Trade and investment have become more politicized and the notion of “value-neutral” non-discriminatory trade and investment is more difficult to carry on in practice. As such, the issue of trade and investment asymmetries and dependencies has again become an important foreign and economic policy consideration. 

Moreover, it appears that China is seeking to remake the international order and the balance of power in its Asia-Pacific neighborhood. Since the ascension of President Xi Jinping, China has re-emphasized authoritarian rule and embraced a more insurgent nationalism. At the rhetorical and normative level, the Chinese government has rejected the validity and efficacy of liberal values, human rights, and Western models of internationalism. This rejection is underscored by Beijing’s attempts to influence electoral politics across the region, its support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and its increased willingness to use force and/or the threats of force in Taiwan and the South China Sea. New Zealand cannot avoid the changing international context by focusing only on its trade and investment relationships in the Pacific.

It can be argued that regional polarization is the product of both U.S. and Chinese misperceptions and does not concern New Zealand. Moreover, a move toward a closer relationship with Australia and the United States along with joining Pillar II of AUKUS not only misidentifies the threat to New Zealand’s national interest (China) but also increases polarization and the risk of conflict and threatens trade with China. Yet such a policy position is not advanced by clinging to the moniker “independent” or by embracing the idea that closer security relationships will undermine the self-determining nature of New Zealand or make it less democratic. 

As discussed above, New Zealand has always pursued a Western-oriented, liberal-based foreign policy. Its foreign policy has always been couched within the liberal-based order, security relationships with Western states, and appreciation of the position of small trading states within that order. It was forged with dissatisfaction with ideology, nuclear-proliferation, and the inability of Western states (particularly the United States) to see the real problems and issues in the Pacific and the developing world but was never in opposition to the liberal international order or Western security cooperation in itself.

The international context and New Zealand’s normative and material objectives today, and in the future, are what policymakers need to consider when considering Pillar II of AUKUS. In any event, the emphatic commitment to those foreign policy elements discussed above, without which New Zealand would not have an “independent” foreign policy, substitutes tropes and discourse for real policy and reflects an ideological predisposition instead of clear analysis. 

New Zealand foreign policy has always been a laboratory for small states to have an impact on global affairs. It has included realpolitik considerations as well as other material and normative elements that have often been hard to reconcile. It also includes a specific commitment to small state independence and liberal values (both in security and economic relationships), which neither preclude additional security commitments nor mandate a policy premised on avoiding polarizing competition. Rather the issue is whether the international environment requires a deeper re-alignment of foreign policy objectives and commitments.

This analysis has been undertaken by both Finland and Sweden when they chose to join NATO, despite their deep historical commitment to neutrality and foreign policy “independence.” Such an analysis is not facilitated by a misplaced commitment to an idealized notion of an “independent” foreign policy that has been present in New Zealand policy discourse.