Top Scoops

Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | Scoop News | Wellington Scoop | Community Scoop | Search


Terrence O'Brien - Defence Policy After East Timor



The International Context

Terence O’Brien
Teaching Fellow, International Relations, VUW.

The international context has materially altered since New Zealand last reviewed that context as part of a substantive reassessment of defence policy, back in 1991. The Cold War had just ended and the full implications of that seismic event had yet to be measured. The continuing assumption that the policy prescribed in 1991 remains valid is unsupported by any publicly available explanation. For this reason, it seems important a new assessment revisits the basic foundations of strategic context for New Zealand defence policy. It is not the contention here that such a return to basics would produce immediate or radical change in actual New Zealand defence and security practice. But it should motivate shifts of perception about interests which fashion the way New Zealand composes its defence effort.


The colossal struggles for power that dominated the past century until its last decade, through hot wars and cold, have evaporated. There is no overarching military threat to global security emanating from major power clash. The world confronts, rather, numerous perils, none of which pose overwhelming threat to world survival, but have potential for damaging harm and destruction . There is no guarantee that these circumstances will persist. Overarching military threat could, one day, re-emerge but not without reasonable premonition. In foreseeable circumstances, defence priorities for a small serious international country like New Zealand, can only be addresed on a basis of reasonable contingency.

The military threats that now abound emanate from different causes –destabilising transitions to democracy, fundamentalist, or ethnic antagonisms; and the brutalisation of the individual often by his or her own government. The dominant mood in international politics rejects indifference to such prevailing turbulence . Human security assumes today almost co-equal status with that traditionally assigned to national security. The critical challenge is how, and under what authority, outside restorative action including military intervention should occur.
There are two principal substantive lessons at this point.

The Peace Support Task

First, in the pervasive conflict of today the distinction between civilian and combatant is often blurred – neighbour kills neighbour – the innocent cannot be distinguished from the guilty. The original aggressors often end up themselves as victims – ethnic cleansers become themselves ethnically cleansed . The task of outside peacemakers becomes infinitely complex. Yet a small properly tasked defence force, relying upon basic professionalism, ingenuity, readiness, grass -roots skills and appropriate hardware, is as capable of a meaningful contribution in these prevailing circumstances as a force from a powerful, technologically sophisticated country, programmed for high intensity warfighting, especially if its leadership is risk averse.

At the same time as experience also demonstrates, the task of restoring civilian society implicates defence forces. Rebuilding national structures requires aptitudes, which complement military professionalism. Defence tasking and training for peace support that involves interoperability with civilian non-governmental elements is crucial.

New Zealand Contribution and the Quigley Report

Given the pervasive nature of contemporary conflict, the majority recommendations of the 1999 Quigley Committee that New Zealand should, as a matter of strategic emphasis, refine and reprioritize defence capacities in order to develop a cohesive, integrated, well equipped expeditionary capability and enhance thereby its contribution to global or regional peace support in the prevailing environment, carries the undeniable force of commonsense.

The fact NZDF already displays aptitude for peace support in several parts of the world is a tribute to its senior leaders and trainers. The NZDF’s ingenuity and professionalism serve New Zealand interest admirably. A solid foundation exists for improvement in terms of change that, for example, creates more distinctive NZ identity by enhancing critical mass through greater interoperability, mobility and readiness – in other words, a small marine corps-type capacity grounded in excellence.

Cooperative and Common Security

A second substantive lesson is that the end of the Cold War in 1990 removed a longstanding frame of reference for security thinking which was comprehensible, reliable, and continuous . International relations immediately took on a more multi-facetted character and demanded greater capacity for independent judgement about security– especially among the small nations. The challenge was amplified by the powerful reverberations of globalisation. Governments seem no longer in charge in quite the same way when trans-boundary threats of cyberspace aggression, organised crime, terrorism, illegal migration, weapons proliferation and the menace of ecological disaster crowd the international agenda. No country however powerful can master these challenges with a zero-sum game approach. The very notion of security itself becomes more comprehensive, and international response patently demands greater cooperation, not competition, between countries.

As an insight into the modern world, none of this is new. But it never seems to have formed part of serious reassessment by New Zealand of defence and security policy, at least on the printed public page. The last full policy reassessment of 1991 produced a White Paper where basic strategic judgement was, not surprisingly, little different from the competitive times of the Cold War. This constitutes an anomaly which now obstructs reevaluation of thinking about defence capabilities, including doctrines like balanced force, most appropriate to present and anticipated forms of instability.

With the end of Cold War, the strategic requirement was to create trust and openness about military capabilities amongst countries, which had been staunch adversaries. Conflict resolution and prevention were to complement this transparency. The United Nations had an obvious part to play as did regional arrangements. Disarmament, by definition, had to be an essential feature.

The objective was to demilitarize international relations through a framework for cooperative security where nation states would calculate their national interest and the collective interest to be one and the same. In East Asia, the absence of a tradition of regional cooperation provided a particular challenge, but the threat environment has nonetheless been dramatically transformed basically because of indigenous regional commitment to economic and social modernisation and the disavowal of military aggression .

There is scepticism amongst non-Asian governments about the robustness of the region’s cooperative security model. It is a product of non-Western statecraft but has the notably positive achievement of implicating an emergent China. The destabilisation of Indonesia’s transition to democracy, coupled with economic adversity provoked by volatile capital is a severe test for the regional model. For NZ the requirement then to remain engaged over the long haul in helping nurture and strengthen East Asian cooperative security is a strategic imperative.

Competitive Security and Alliances

Explanations for what caused the end of the Cold war condition attitudes towards cooperative security. There are differing judgements about that cause . For those who are convinced it constituted simply a triumph for the power and ideals of the West there is no evident logic in changing a winning formula - a formula which had been grounded in Cold War principles, and institutions, of competitive security, and exemplified principally in military alliances (notably NATO) with their doctrines of deterrence and containment.

Experience teaches military alliances are pragmatic, temporary affairs formed to confront a common adversary . They often unite countries with incompatible ideologies. When the adversary is overcome or danger disappears, military alliances tend to subside. The Warsaw Pact faithfully followed that rule, but NATO is disproving history. Its enlargement serves effectively to prolong and privilege the principles of deterrence and containment of competitive security. Although the great majority of countries choose not to be in alliances, it is of course the absolute sovereign right of any country to enter a military alliance with like-minded others. One must respect, although not always share, the strategic calculation which informs such decisions. But the objective of fashioning post compromised by embellishment of military alliances without clear pattern or purpose . By appearing moreover to treat excluded countries as enemies, the danger surely is, moreover, that they may indeed become enemies.

Circumstantial evidence points this way. Russia’s profound opposition to NATO enlargement following its own acquiescence in the dismantlement of the Warsaw Pact, unites all shades of political opinion in that strife-ridden country . It is the basic explanation for Russian obstruction of a range of cooperative security initiatives at the level of the Security Council which, perversely, led NATO to act alone in Kosovo. The prospect of a new US missile defence system that tilts further the international security landscape, would surely compound the difficulties. Likewise, embellishment of bilateral security treaties in East Asia by Australia, Japan, and the US is producing Catch 22 where criticism of ARF's modest achievements comes from the very governments whose evident commitment is first to competitive not cooperative security. Chinese perceptions of containment are fuelled by emphasis on competitive security structures that sit awkwardly with the simultaneous design of cooperative structures for security dialogue and for economic cooperation for the region which all demand a peaceable China.

New Zealand’s Situation

New Zealand’s lack of power, its absence of grand strategic ambition, its problem solving mentality and impartiality plus the factors surveyed in this contribution, should place it in the camp of those countries who are disposed towards a cooperative approach to regional and global security management. These are the reasons, too, why the status of friend but not ally with the US and, indeed, with other powers, suits NZ in the circumstance of the contemporary world. New Zealand defence assessments of the past have never stated any of this in as many terms. To annunciate it now as part of a reassessment of defence policy would not signal radical change in New Zealand involvement in peace support, in exercising and training or staff exchanges with other countries, hopefully including the US, whose preference remains for more competitive security frameworks.

It could influence, however, actual defence equipment acquisitions based on NZ’s own judgement of what is the best and most relevant way now to fulfil peace support responsibilities and interests. The Quigley recommendations are pointers in a new but not revolutionary direction. Fears that partners will dismiss the relevance of a differently composed NZ defence contribution are misplaced or exaggerated. The reality is that the advantages for the international community of involving a small, competent impartial democracy with an effective professional defence force, fashioned (as do other countries) according to its own judgement, will endure.

Membership of NATO now defines for many, what it means to be Western, liberal and democratic in today’s world. NATO presumes frequently to speak on behalf of this category of nations. While NZDF’s military doctrine and equipment may be NATO compatible, NZ can hardly conceive of itself as a distant NATO branch member or conduct security policy as if it were. It is a Pacific democracy with global interests and deep vested concern for international rules-based order in international political and economic relations. The robustness of that order, history teaches, is interdependent. Multilateral peace support for NZ is, or must be, therefore, as much about support for strengthening the sinews of world order as it is about peace restoration in the particular conflict at issue.

None of this implies the throwing over of old partnerships and associations. But it does mean dispensing with a mindset evident from the 1991 defence review that there exists a privileged set of Western interests in Pacific East Asia which have first call upon NZ’s security thinking and allegiance. Stability and prosperity in East Asia are not the concerns solely, or even predominantly, of the so-called West. NZ defence policy must dilute this imperial or Cold War legacy, by taking further steps to advance NZ defence connexions with non-traditional partners in Pacific East Asia through FPDA type relationships, at the same time as existing partnerships are nurtured. Defence diplomacy is a dynamic ingredient of a policy that better reflects NZ’s interests and place. Partnership that respects diversity is a maxim for defence policy as much as it is for NZ’s own nation building..


Obviously, the immediate lessons of East Timor will require to be shared with Australia at two levels. Already the Australian Chief of Defence Staff has intimated that East Timor might lead to higher priority for peacekeeping responsibilities among ADF tasking which has prompted Paul Dibb of the Canberra Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies (CSDS) to observe that this would bring Australia more into line with the policies of New Zealand and Canada.

One primary lesson for New Zealand is that East Timor reinforces support for the principle of cooperative collective security enshrined in the UN Charter. One relevant question is whether the symmetry of the model for East Timor intervention – a coalition led by a middle-level power with US supply of logistical support– is capable of being replicated in future. The ability of the UN to respond promptly in situations where the UNSC authorises such intervention has been a preoccupation ever since 1992 . Australia, supported by New Zealand, is well placed because of East Timor, to pursue improvements in the multilateral response system.

The impact of East Timor on the broader Australia-NZ security relationships merits separate treatment in its own right. Briefing for the new government emphasises that Australia and NZ constitute a single strategic entity. This is a definition favoured by strategic planners but its precise meaning does not imply shared world-view, nor does it reduce the NZ-Australia relationship to a single dimension of military security and defence. Western Europe, itself defined as such a single such entity, contains members, Britain and Ireland, for example which are tightly connected in many important ways but whose world view differs as a function of relative size and power. The consolidation by Australia in the new century of middle-level power status, its deepening security alliance with, and unwavering support for, the US, suggest the example of Britain and Ireland is more likely to resonate with NZ in its Australian relationship, in circumstances where a more detached NZ policy position is judged to serve this country’s interests. That resonance should not, however, detract from the pragmatic operational utility to both countries of CDR in respect to defence of Australasia. The dynamics of the relationship will, as ever, require attentive management – but that is nothing new.

Nuclear Policy

Finally, in the past New Zealand defence policy documents have drawn little connection with New Zealand’s overall international security policy. There are doubtless explanations for this although it is difficult to be certain about what they might be. Non-proliferation of WMD, and of missiles, will unquestionably preoccupy the future international security agenda. New Zealand’s politically bipartisan non-nuclear policy embodies the central logic of non-proliferation. It was coherently set forth by the Attorney General, who was also Defence Minister, in 1996 at the World Court. A synthesis of the reasons for New Zealand’s position on the utility and legality of nuclear weapons must merit inclusion in any document that includes consideration of defence policy. Without it, the frame of reference that New Zealand applies to defence and security issues in the world will not be established in ways that are clear to security partners and friends it seeks to cultivate. The basis for defence policy will, in other words, remain incomplete.

February, 2000.

© Scoop Media

Top Scoops Headlines


Mediaversaries: 20 Years Of The Scoop Information Ecosystem

Scoop celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. To celebrate, we are offering 20% off all ScoopPro subscriptions, including the newly launched ScoopPro Citizen service for Citizen readers. More>>


Lyndon Hood: Better Analogies For National Pilfering Budget Data

After the Treasury Secretary's tragically doomed effort provide a metaphorical image for the budget data breach, and the rash of media attempts that followed, we never got an analogy that really covers all the bases. Until now. More>>


Resignation Of Metiria Turei: Were Journalists 'Just Doing Their Job'?

In our research we examined the role of journalism in animating the Turei controversy and the different perceptions of professional journalists and online commentators sympathetic to Turei’s left politics. ... More>>

Gordon Campbell: On The Extradition Of Julian Assange

It isn’t necessary to like Julian Assange to think that his extradition to the US (on the charge of aiding and abetting Chelsea Manning) would be a major injustice... More>>