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Unsynchronised Elections and NZ – US Relations

Unsynchronised Elections and New Zealand –US Relations.*

Paul G. Buchanan

The irony of the last decade is that when holding elections New Zealand and the United States exhibit a lack of political synchronization. Take the latest iteration. Both countries saw a change in political direction, but the changes point them down opposite paths. The US zigged left while New Zealand zagged right. How did this happen?

The answer lies in something known as “incumbent sclerosis.” It is a form of political rot characterized by displays of arrogance, official indifference and abuses of power by entrenched government elites, something that had set in on opposite corners of the Pacific. That led to the syndrome known as “voter fatigue” whereby the electorate was overwhelmingly tired of being governed by an unresponsive status quo. People wanted something different—even change for change’s sake-- and voted accordingly. The result is that the US and New Zealand governments, ideologically and practically speaking, are now set to move further apart rather than closer. That may be a blessing or a curse.

The US made a progressive change in electing Barack Obama as president. Not only because of the profound symbolism that he represents in terms of race relations or in reaffirming the US historical narrative that it is a land of opportunity in the eyes of the world. More importantly, his election is progressive because it represents a rejection of the divisive “wedge” politics of the last twenty-five years. Rather than play on fear and moral polarization within the traditional (white) US majority, Obama represents the idea of hope and change within the new voting demographic (which is younger, browner, more socially tolerant and mobilized than previous electoral generations). In recognition of this as well as of the gravity of the crisis in which the US finds itself, the change also reflects an ideological shift away from the hyper-conservative moralism and public indifference that for years has been the touchstone of American politics, and which contributed to the excesses and debacles of the George W. Bush administration at home and abroad. The question remains, however, whether Mr. Obama will succeed in imposing a new style of politics (and policy-making) in the US.

In contrast, New Zealand opted for regressive change. The striking thing about National’s campaign—besides the absurdity of a former currency speculator such as John Key likening himself to a former community organizer like Barack Obama—was that when it did offer policy alternatives to Labour, it was usually in the form of reversing or eliminating policies already in force (as well as saying one thing in public and another in private). They rhetoric of its campaign was about “reductions,” “cuts,” “downsizing,” “belt-tightening,” “privatizing,” “reducing crime” and “eliminating waste” (the latter two being synonymous in the minds of many conservative voters). It said little in the way of policy that tackled the foundations of New Zealand’s social problems. Talking tough on crime and targeting dole-bludgers does not address the root causes of these social pathologies, just the symptoms. National’s social policy prescriptions, therefore, are not panaceas. Likewise, National promises to reduce taxes and decrease public spending while maintaining quality public services and increasing investment in productive infrastructure. The question is how?

Whereas the US electorate sought to make history, in large measure the New Zealand electorate sought to reverse it. US voters opted for a real change in policy direction that addresses the fundamental causes of the American malaise, while New Zealanders opted for neo-liberal salves and bromides. Time will tell what was the more realistic option.

Economic policy is where the first potential area of dissonance between the US and New Zealand could emerge. John Key and his advisors are free marketers at a time when market-oriented macroeconomic logics are in retreat. The disgraced economic sector in which Key made his name—finance—has been revealed to be one of the least contributory towards productive wealth in the entire combine of global capitalism. It now has the dubious distinction of requiring direct government intervention in order to survive, with taxpayer funded bank bailouts the order of the day. Yet Key and his advisors think that market deregulation is the solution to rather than the principal cause of the crisis of global capitalism.

Obama’s economic orientation is neo-Keynesian, so his approach is in direct contrast to John Key’s. Although far from the socialist he was accused of being during the electoral campaign, Obama will replace the guiding hand of the deregulated market with the long arm of the state in directing the course of the US economy, and by extension, that of its economic partners. He will not only seek to redistribute wealth downwards via tax reform (in contrast to National’s plan to redistribute wealth upwards). He will use his regulatory, oversight and enforcement powers to focus US capitalism on productive wealth creation rather than unproductive wealth accumulation. For people like John Key, that is sacrilege simply because of their overriding belief in the primacy of unfettered finance capital as the leading edge of global capitalism. Thus, when Mr. Key eventually meets president Obama, their discussions on economic matters should be entertaining. Mr. Key would well be advised to listen rather than speak.

In spite of these fundamental differences in the macroeconomic orientation of both governments, profound changes will likely not eventuate in either country. Where change does occur it will likely be around the margins of policy rather than at the core. This is as true for economic policy as it is for foreign policy.

The reason is simple. Both new governments inherit situations that are impossible to change abruptly or fundamentally. Institutional embeddedness exists in both places. That is a situation in which new governments inherit pre-existing institutions, rules, commitments, engagements, contracts, negotiations and reputations that make it singularly difficult to abandon or reverse them. Institutional embeddedness is in many ways a policy strait jacket that new governments must learn to wear. Any decision made by new governments are considered to be “path dependent” in that they are the product of past policy choices, the institutionalization of which gives legacy depth to the original policy direction. Moreover, outgoing governments generally attempt to further “lock-in” their successors by deepening policy commitments in the transitional period leading to the installation of the new administration. Hence even when attempting to reverse previous policies, new governments are confronted by the accumulated sedimentary weight of past decisions turned into policy practices. Thus, be it the withdrawal of troops from Iraq or in proposals to privatize ACC or Kiwibank, both the Obama administration and the National government will proceed cautiously rather than precipitously.

There will nevertheless initially be some significant differences in the foreign policy approaches of the new governments. Democratic administrations in general and Mr. Obama in particular are inclined towards multilateral approaches to international relations. This is as true militarily as it is with regard to trade. In addition—and this is where the specific relationship with New Zealand comes in—issues of trade and security tend to be more closely linked by Democratic administrations than by their Republican counterparts, especially when it comes to bilateral relations.

New Zealand’s efforts to secure a bilateral free trade agreement with the US will not necessarily suffer increased obstacles because of Obama’s perceived protectionist orientation. New Zealand is already low in US trade priorities for a variety of reasons, and with so many other potential (larger) partners ahead in the cue of supplicants, New Zealand will not likely advance its bilateral prospects regardless of the orientation of the Obama administration. But it may not fall any further down the cue either. After all, having gone more than twenty years fruitlessly trying to secure a bilateral free trade agreement regardless of who is power in the US, what is to suggest that the trend will be altered one way or the other under the Obama administration (regardless of what National may propose by way of concessions)?

Where New Zealand has a better chance of gaining preferential access to (some) US markets is through the recently announced P4+1 talks involving the US and the existing multilateral free trade partnership encompassing Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. The US will not abandon those talks just because a new administration is installed. In fact, the Obama administration may prefer to secure an agreement with the P4 precisely because it is a multilateral compact with a diverse array of small economies operating under universal rules. Thus, although progress in bilateral talks may not advance under President Obama, New Zealand may well find that it has ”back door” opportunities to access US markets via the multilateral structure of the P4+1 partnership (should it eventuate).

This Democratic interest in multilateralism extends to diplomatic and security relations. Under the direction of Clinton administration re-treads, (all world-class intellects in the field of international relations), the US will seek to modify the approach to international security affairs embodied in the Bush doctrine of unilateral preemption. It will seek to engage more diplomatic partners in identifying and countering global security threats, the fight against Islamic extremism and sub-national ethnic conflict being foremost amongst them. It will work harder to ensure diplomatic consensus before military operations are undertaken, and it will more energetically pursue the support not just of other large powers, but of smaller diplomatic allies with a vested interest in peaceful conflict resolution.

What that means in practice is that the US is likely to increase its appeals to potential security partners to expand their commitment of troops and material in mutually recognized conflict zones, particularly in failed states or those under siege from irregular forces such as the Taliban. For New Zealand that means the likelihood that it will receive US requests for a larger commitment in Afghanistan, to include deployment of front line combat troops. It will also likely be requested to increase its security presence in East Timor and various southwestern Pacific nations where the very authority of the state is being challenged. In exchange, it is possible that the US will formally abandon its opposition to New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance and relax its “neither confirm or deny” policy with regards to the presence of nuclear material aboard US naval vessels in order to allow port visits and increased military-to-military cooperation (which has quietly increased anyway since 2001).

Above all, the US under president Obama will see its relations with New Zealand as an interlocking web of commitments rather than as a disaggregated set of agreements on different policy issues (which is how the Bush administration tended to treat them). That makes internal discussion in New Zealand on any one foreign policy matter directly involving the US more important for the successful establishment or maintenance of other issues, which in turn requires National’s comprehension of the linkages between diplomacy, security and trade in the US foreign policy perspective.

National’s approach to foreign policy will therefore be critical in determining the course of US-New Zealand relations. Confronted with the US foreign policy shift under Obama, National will have to reassess its traditional foreign policy stance, which has been heavily weighed towards blanket support for traditional security patrons and an overriding emphasis on promoting free trade regardless of political, ethical, social or security considerations involving potential partners (such as when trading with authoritarians or underdeveloped countries). National tends to be more slavish than Labour in its desire to emulate Australian approaches to foreign affairs and international security. It is more keen to curry favour with Australia, the US and UK by supporting their foreign military adventures. It is less supportive of the UN than Labour, particularly in its peacekeeping and multilateral security operations. Unless modified, this latter stance could put it at odds with the Obama administration when it comes to future contributions to so-called “blue helmet” deployments outside of New Zealand’s immediate sphere of interest.

The National government must resist the temptation to engage in knee-jerk acceptance of US foreign policy prescriptions in pursuit of better bilateral relations (which is how the abjectly pro-US stance publicly espoused by John Key and Bill English comes across to diplomatic observers). This is not only due to the negative domestic political repercussions that such a toadying stance would entail. It is due also to what can be called the “perceived neutrality” principle, whereby apparent distance between states serves as useful diplomatic cover for the advancement of their mutual interests.

By this principle, the US will not necessarily look favourably on a sycophantic response from New Zealand to its requests and recommendations on the world stage. New Zealand’s utility to the US is that it has the reputation of being a reliable partner and yet an independent global citizen. That is, New Zealand’s perceived autonomy in the conduct of its foreign relations is what gives it the reputation status that allows it to operate on a diplomatic level far above what its size would otherwise deserve. It would therefore serve neither country well to have that reputation tarnished by having New Zealand seen to be obsequious to the US under a National government. Instead, the mutual interests of both countries in selected foreign policy areas would be better pursued via seemingly independent yet congruent strategies rooted in purported national self-interest.

That is where pubic and private diplomacy proves useful: a state can maintain a public position while quietly adjusting to the circumstances at hand (say, for example, on issues of nuclear non-proliferation where New Zealand maintains a public stance of staunch opposition to the dissemination of enrichment technology and material but in practice agrees to IAEA-supervised transfers of both to countries with disputed proliferation records. Such was the case in the Nuclear Suppliers Group of which New Zealand is a leading member, which recently approved a US sale of enriched uranium to India in spite of serious concerns about its proliferation potential).

National government would consequently be advised to maintain a level of diplomatic autonomy when it comes to foreign affairs, which is where the apparent ideological gap between the two governments could prove to be useful. In order to ensure the correct mix of public and private foreign policy initiatives it will need a sophisticated diplomatic operator—not a party hack-- to fill the role of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It will need someone well versed in international security affairs to fill the role of Defense Minister, and it will need Mr. Key to be brought up to speed on the requirements, responsibilities and pitfalls inherent in being the Minister of Security Intelligence. Along with inherited foreign policy, trade and military-intelligence commitments, the proper combination of personnel appointments and policy positions will mitigate against any negative change in the bilateral relationship caused by the polar shift in their respective voter preferences.

The one area that will see the most change, and which has the potential to pose problems for both governments, is in the field of domestic politics as they impact on foreign policy. In fact, when it comes to foreign policy in general, and the bilateral relationship between New Zealand and the US in particular, the problem of their respective domestic politics is paramount. That is where the lack of electoral synchronization will have its greatest impact.

Wracked by internal factionlisation in the wake of massive electoral defeats in 2006 and 2008, the Republican Party will act as a disloyal opposition within months of Obama taking office. It has just enough votes in Congress to make passage of legislation difficult, and it will do everything in its power to thwart the Democratic legislative agenda, be it on the economy, foreign affairs, military spending or health care. The purpose is twofold. First, just like the so-called war on terror is in fact a conflict within Islam between radical and moderate factions using the West as their common foil, so the conflict in Congress will actually be between moderate and conservative Republicans using their common Democratic enemy as the target in their fight for leadership of the GOP. Secondly, the strategy of disloyal opposition involves a blanket lack of cooperation that is designed to undermine the Obama administration and the Democratic congressional bloc, thereby making them appear weak and ineffectual at a time of national crisis. The Republicans can use their minority status to obstruct and stymie Democratic initiatives without taking the blame for any failures. That sets the Republicans up for better performances in the 2010 and 2012 elections once the outcome of the leadership struggle within the GOP has been decided.

The trouble this poses for US foreign relations under President Obama is that in the measure that the GOP strategy is successful, the US will be hampered in its quest to change its image and consequent relationship with the rest of the world. To the extent that it cannot do so, external frustration will mount at the lack of change in direction in US foreign policy, which will lead to increased challenges to the US on a number of fronts while at the same time forcing smaller actors such as New Zealand to re-consider the merit of engaging the US as a foreign policy priority when other large partners beckon as more stable substitutes (even if they are authoritarian, such as the PRC).

Democrats have their own issues. They owe the left wing of the party a considerable debt for the electoral victory. That means that issues dear to the Democratic Left, especially its antiwar and protectionist wings, will have to be assuaged to some degree, which will harden Republican resolve to block any such moves. This should not impact on New Zealand very dramatically simply because those hot button issues do not involve US-New Zealand relations at their core. Even in trade, New Zealand does not pose a threat to the strongest Democratic constituent blocs, and so should not see an adverse reaction from them in that area. Since Republicans tend to support freer trade and closer security relations with countries like New Zealand, they would not interfere with progress on those fronts in any event (depending on the status of the internecine quarrel going on with the GOP).

The National government has potential problems in the making, and the main one is ACT. ACT in government will press for change on exactly the issues in which the US and New Zealand are headed apart. ACT is to New Zealand capitalism what Shiites, Wahabists and Salafists are to Islam: the most fanatical, doctrinaire and uncompromising market zealots in the capitalist political mix. Because it is the most ideologically unified coalition partner, ACT will push its agenda in government well beyond its electoral mandate. Since National’s leadership is not as committed to pure market logics as are the ACT leaders, they may become susceptible to policy recommendations that will increase the distance between National and the US government on matters of common economic interest. National is susceptible because of the fragility of coalition politics. It needs ACT more than ACT needs it. That could jeopardize the P4+1 discussions or attempts to revive a common basis for discussion in the (suspended) Doha round of trade negotiations, to say nothing of a host of other policy issues.

Labour in opposition will not act disloyally in the way the Republicans will in the US. It can afford not to simply because the tensions within the National government may rapidly escalate into full-blown contradictions in governance, especially if United Future and the Maori Party are part of the coalition. What Labour will do is increase its Left-based opposition to anything that smacks of foreign policy “appeasement” to the US, in part to attack and weaken National but also in order to shore up its alliance with the Green Party and less consequential Left factions. There may be a strong dose of hypocrisy in this strategy, but it is also clever in terms of determining the parameters of parliamentary debate for the next three years.

The bottom line is that for the near future the New Zealand and the US governments will be drifting apart ideologically, but that will not have a dramatic impact on the course of their bilateral relations so long as neither government adopts an overtly doctrinaire approach to foreign relations. Should US voters shift right in two years or New Zealand voters shift left in three, the possibilities for ideological synchronization between the two governments becomes greater (albeit never uniform). But even then, barring some major precipitating event, New Zealand-US relations will not suffer dramatic changes simply owing to the power asymmetries between them.

Over the near term the biggest obstacle to improving the relationship between the two countries will come from the actions of elements within each ruling coalition, their opposition or important constituent bases that push their respective agendas on each government in polarizing ways.
To the degree that they are successful in doing so, the repercussive impact of the unsynchronized electoral trends in New Zealand and the US will filter upwards into national policy-making, with consequences potentially negative for the relationship between the two countries. So long as the bilateral relationship between the US and New Zealand is considered important to both countries, it is incumbent that the entering governments push for continuity and deepening of extant relations while avoiding public positions that accentuate their differences rather than common interests. After all, it is undiplomatic to say “no.”

[*] This essay is the basis for a speech to be given at the Bay of Islands U3A Club on November 19, 2008. Dr. Buchanan thanks Mary and Lindsay Johnson and the members of U3A Bay of Islands for offering their hospitality during his visit.


Paul G. Buchanan is a Visiting Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore. His work focuses on the intersection between comparative and international politics, with emphasis on regime dynamics, strategic thought, security affairs and labour relations.

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