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Dunne Speaks: Is Our Independent Foreign Policy Coming To An End?

Recent events raise the question of whether New Zealand’s self-proclaimed independent foreign policy is slowly but surely being whittled away in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

First there was the so-called autonomous sanctions legislation rushed through Parliament unanimously a few weeks ago to enable economic sanctions to be made against Russia. Yet when a virtually identical Bill had been introduced last July by National it had been rejected as contrary to the flavour and intent of current foreign policy.

Autonomous sanctions legislation allows for the unilateral imposition of economic and other sanctions outside a United Nations’ mandate. As a staunch supporter of the United Nations New Zealand had always preferred to act against rogue states in accordance with a United Nations’ mandate rather than at the behest of a superpower like the United States, or another grouping of countries. The absence of domestic autonomous sanctions legislation made it easier for us to do so. It was why, for example, New Zealand was able to resist United States’ pressure to join George Bush’s coalition of the willing in the ill-fated venture against Iraq and was a cornerstone of our foreign policy under both the Clark and Key governments.

No-one would deny that there are strong reasons for the imposition of sanctions against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine. To that extent, given New Zealand’s abhorrence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it made sense to alter our position on autonomous sanctions to enable us to do so. However, the passage of broad autonomous sanctions legislation means that New Zealand will now find it more difficult to resist United States’ and British pressure to become involved in similar situations in the future, where the moral, political and national interest arguments for New Zealand to do so are far less compelling. At the same time, the passage of the legislation also sends a clear signal that New Zealand will be less inclined to await a mandate from the United Nations in the future.

The commitment of a small contingent of Defence personnel and an aged Hercules to the Ukraine war is a similar subtle shift in focus. No-one is suggesting this intervention will have any practical impact on the overall situation there – indeed, a fair chunk of the personnel being sent are RNZAF support crew to make sure the Hercules gets there and back safely. It is more a question of the symbolism involved.

Nor is it the first time New Zealand personnel have been deployed. Post-event peacekeepers and reconstruction forces have played valuable and lengthy roles in the Balkans, Timor Leste, the Solomon Islands, Sinai, Iraq and Afghanistan in the last quarter century. They have won a worthy reputation for their contribution, and we properly honour the sacrifices of those who died performing such service.

What is different now is that while the personnel now being sent to Europe to support Ukraine will not be actively involved in the conflict, nor will even enter Ukraine, the move does signal a more active response than to previous crises. We appear to be quietly moving beyond the hitherto post-event logistical support, peacekeeping and recovery roles New Zealand has become so adept at.

The counterargument is that Russia’s unprovoked, premeditated assault on Ukraine is the most profound threat to international order since the end of the Second World War, and therefore requires the combined response of the liberal Western democracies to help Ukraine counter it. There is also the modern-day version of the Domino Theory argument – that if Ukraine falls, then other independent states, once in the old Soviet orbit, like Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia come under more immediate risk. The consequence of that occurring would be a far more serious conflagration. The belief is that a strong and united front from the liberal Western democracies is required to bring home to Russia and its apparently obstinate leadership the complete unacceptability of its conduct.

New Zealand has every right to conclude that support for Ukraine is not only justified in humanitarian and moral terms, but that it is also in our national interests to do so. But for a small country so far away from the scene of the conflict there is only so much we can do. We have taken some steps on refugee resettlement and the provision of general humanitarian aid, but we can do much more in that space that will be far more effective than a token military response.

It is clear from the number of blue and yellow flags and emblems fluttering around our cities and towns that New Zealanders strongly support Ukraine’s independence and want to do the best we can to uphold that. It is doubtful that a small group in an elderly Hercules is that best effort.

While a dispassionate assessment would downplay the efficacy of direct military involvement, it is easy to understand why the government has made limited moves in this direction. It is a practical display to other nations supporting Ukraine of our support for the cause. While understandable, it leaves unanswered, if not unconsidered, the bigger question of the precedent it creates.

It may well be that New Zealand is now realising that in today’s changing international environment an independent foreign policy approach probably needs to become less purist and more flexible and pragmatic. The rising tension between the United States and China – two nations with whom New Zealand has close relations but for very different reasons – was already leading many to speculate that eventually we will have to make a choice between the two. Trying to be friends with both will become an increasingly difficult line to straddle if tensions between them persist and escalate.

Therefore, if the latest response to the Ukraine situation does represent a shift in foreign policy direction towards more active engagement with and support of historic partners than has been the case since the 1980s, the government should say so. It cannot just rely on other countries interpreting the subtleties of our policy shifts correctly. If that is not the intention, the government needs to be equally clear in reasserting our independent foreign policy and presenting our stand on Ukraine as consistent with that. It cannot afford ambiguity.

It has often been said that one of the reasons for the impasse with the United States in the 1980s over our anti-nuclear policy was because of initial mixed messages from New Zealand on the scope of the policy. If a general foreign policy reset is now underway prompted by the Ukraine invasion, New Zealand needs to make the scope of that change very clear to friends and allies from the outset, to avoid similar confusion, resentment and distrust occurring in the future.


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