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Beyond an ‘Independent’ Foreign Policy

Beyond an ‘Independent’ Foreign Policy


Mr John Hayes MP ONZM

Speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs
20 October 2009


Members of the Institute, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for inviting me to address this milestone conference in the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs’ 75th anniversary year.

The Institute has made a major contribution to foreign policy scholarship over a long period of time. The quality of the discussions and panels you have scheduled over the next two days certainly continues this tradition.

Lord Maynard Keynes once said “practical men, devoid of the trappings of theory, are often the prisoners of some mad scribbler”, the point being that deliberations such as these can have long lasting impacts on major issues.

Equally, the diversity of topics – independent foreign policy, food security, relations with Asia-Pacific, the Global Financial Crisis, climate change and dealing with the dominant emerging powers – reflects the necessarily broad perspective the Institute has always brought to its analysis.

One of the Institute’s most important goals has been to foster informed public discussion and an understanding of international events affecting New Zealand. I therefore thought you might tolerate some personal remarks on two separate but related issues.

Today I will assert that the debate here about an independent foreign policy has direct implications for the failure of self government in Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau. With the very best and kindest of intentions and some encouragement from the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation we have allowed our preoccupation with an independent foreign policy to encourage Cook Islands and Niue to have theirs. The fact is that the age of decolonisation has ended.

The outcome is that a high percentage of residents from these Islands have voted with their feet. I think the actions of the majority tell us what they think about governance at home and show us the relevance of Sovereignty to them.

While my thoughts have been tossed around with friends in the region, they are mine alone, not the Government’s nor the National Party’s. They flow from my first contact with the Pacific in 1977 when your Executive Director Brian Lynch sent me on a mission to Solomon Islands in the wake of a large earthquake.

I recollect being responsible for a tremor or two on that occasion and probably elsewhere in the region since. While having a beer at the Guadalcanal yacht club with Solomon’s ministers I realised that small countries could never pursue an independent foreign policy. At the time Britain had just walked off into the sunset leaving Solomon’s communities to govern themselves.

The Solomon Islanders I met wanted the same standard of services and income as they saw in Australia and New Zealand. Some 30 years later I was in Honiara when Bart Ulufa’alu’s government was toppled. Self government has failed communities in Solomon Islands and also other communities closer to home.

Many Cook Island and Niuean friends have told me there was no constituency for self government at the time New Zealand encouraged them to adopt the self government model. Tokelau demonstrated this sentiment twice in the past four years.

The question to address is whether or not the self governance model delivers for certain elites at the cost of the ordinary folks? If it does, it is not an effective system.

I’m in no doubt that New Zealand encouraged self government in Cooks, Niue and Tokelau for its own reasons. Experience has shown that the model has benefited a few political and bureaucratic elite and caused most of the population to emigrate to where they could achieve for their families, what they clearly want: New Zealand (or Australian) standards of social services and incomes.

With respect to New Zealand, Malcolm McKinnon in his book, Independence and Foreign Policy: New Zealand in the World Since 1935 observes that, “the idea of independence is a favoured theme in discussion of New Zealand’s foreign relations and the country’s place in the world.” That is certainly reflected at this conference with two sessions today dedicated to the topic.

At multiple points in New Zealand’s history, Governments have asserted they are operating an independent foreign policy. For countries as small as ours the reality is more complex. While we make our own decisions we do so only after having considered a complex interplay of interests and relationships. We cannot truly “go it alone”.

Let me put the issue of an independent foreign policy into historical context.

For much of New Zealand’s early European history, there was no concept of an independent foreign policy. We had achieved self-government from the 1850s and were granted Dominion status in 1907. However, our international relations were conducted very much as a colony of Britain. This was not unusual. It was the same for Australia and Canada and India.

New Zealand was assertive enough to voice disquiet with the Mother Country regarding a range of issues when our interests and values diverged but it was not until 1943 when the Department of External Affairs was established and we began to enter into independent formal relations with other states by establishing diplomatic missions in Canberra, London, Washington and Moscow.

In 1951, New Zealand signed its first treaty with a foreign power without British involvement. Perhaps ironically given the events following 1984, this first treaty was with the United States of America.

By sending troops to Vietnam in 1965, New Zealand entered its first war where Britain was not involved. Four years later, the Government’s decision to deploy military troops in Asia was the first instance our forces had operated without either Britain or the United States.

This very simple timeline makes it clear that, after the Second World War, New Zealand had the increasing ability to make different foreign policy decisions to the great powers and to implement them effectively. Gerald Hensley will, I am sure, speak about his research around the issue of variance with Australian views during the 1940s. The question really is whether these developments constituted the emergence of an independent foreign policy.

Former Prime Minister Bill Rowling had a simple definition saying an independent foreign policy was a policy which told the world “that our decisions will be made in Wellington, not in Washington, London nor Canberra.”

So what! You might ask. He simply said New Zealand’s decisions are made in New Zealand by New Zealanders and driven by New Zealand’s national interest. At times, that has been teased out and expanded - particularly at a non-Governmental or activist level - to include an almost defiant attitude towards the traditional Western powers and the established international system. We see this today in Fiji with Bainimarama’s defiance to western notions of democracy, yet the community he purports to represent, align with the UK.

The average Fijian is paying the price for their political elites defiance, because it costs them but pays for the political elite. This basic pattern is common right across the Pacific.

We see elements of similar defiance towards New Zealand by Governments of Niue and Cook Islands even though their citizens have New Zealand citizenship. I will deal with this a little later.


The nuclear ship ban in 1984 by the fourth Labour Government and subsequent American backlash are events used by some to illustrate the beginnings of New Zealand’s ‘independent’ stance. Helen Clark consistently lists an ‘independent foreign policy’ as one of her proudest achievements though she credits Norman Kirk with beginning the process.

Professor Robert G Patman argues that “there was never a time when New Zealand was able to project unfettered external sovereignty. For much of its existence, New Zealand foreign policy has been constrained by its geographical isolation, a close political identification with Britain or simply the realities of a hierarchical international order.”

We must be always conscious of the parameters within which we operate; and recognise the impact our decisions can have on international relationships. That moderates independence in the literal sense of the word. We must also be exceptionally wary of the hostility towards America, Britain and Russia which sometimes attaches itself to the rhetoric of independence in international affairs.

The reality is it’s not possible to run an independent foreign policy in the way that its proponents pretend. One of the key reasons is geography. We are small and we are isolated. We have a smaller population than Sydney, and are 1,200 miles away from our nearest neighbour, New Zealand is, as David Lange once quipped, a dagger pointed straight at the heart of Antarctica. A lack of size and power means that New Zealand is unable to run an independent policy, just as our Pacific neighbours cannot either.

Recognising the limitations of our independence is nothing more or less than simply accepting reality. Accepting reality and recognising limitations is necessary for us, in the same way it is for every other country. The challenge is to develop a broadly based, bi-partisan foreign policy that maximises New Zealand’s interests. It will need to allow the pursuit of our interests through a range of bilateral and multilateral relationships; and an acceptance of the pragmatic parameters necessarily imposed by such an approach.

I do not advocate New Zealand being forced into acting against its interests. Rather, an acceptance that some solutions may not always be ideal and, in different situations, we might have to take different approaches. It is illusory to pretend we can completely follow our own path.

Indeed, recent events have demonstrated that some Labour MPs are still struggling with their own Government’s (correct) decision to send the SAS to Afghanistan. It is hard to avoid the sense that the Cabinet at the time was highly reluctant but felt that such an action was important to the relationship with the United States.


It is no coincidence that relationship also appears to be improving steadily. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has announced a resumption of intelligence-sharing co-operation and there is progress on the long stalled sale of the Skyhawk fighters to an American company. In April, Foreign Minister Murray McCully announced the new US administration was looking to relax its 25-year ban on military training and exercises between the New Zealand and American defence forces.

That ban was specifically put in place in protest at New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation and can only be circumvented by a presidential waiver. This is now being reviewed. Perhaps more than any other example, our tumultuous relationship with America over the last 25 years has demonstrated the limits of independence and the importance of relationships.

On the multilateral front, Prime Minister John Key announced at the General Assembly earlier this year that New Zealand would seek a place on the United Nations Security Council in 2014. This move was based on our belief in the international rule of law and the importance of being a "strong and principled" voice for small Pacific states.

This does not just apply to security issues. New Zealand has been a tireless advocate for World Heritage sites over the years. This has involved a focus on extending World Heritage status and protection to exceptional sites both here and abroad. It has been practical and focussed on broader results rather narrow self-interest or a pure form of environmentalism.

It is this ability to mesh national interest with the wider collective interest – a process which is not always entirely comfortable – which is the true cornerstone of our international conduct. It is why we are widely regarded as solid international citizens. We understand there are both rights and responsibilities. New Zealand Governments will now, and in the future, continue to make decisions in Wellington based on our interests as a nation and those of New Zealand citizens.

Let me now contrast this pragmatism and understanding of “rights and responsibilities”, to the policies being pursued by some Pacific Leaders on behalf of some communities, some of whom are New Zealand citizens and whose own foreign policy is nominally administered in Wellington. I will deviate slightly at this juncture to describe what I think are essential policies for the improvement of life in the islands, and for halting the drift of islanders to New Zealand. The core issue is that we need to ensure that incomes and the level of core services in Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau is as good as in New Zealand. The same challenge applies to New Zealand as we try to turn around the flow of high quality, well educated people to Australia.

Firstly, in the matter of New Zealand aid, Wellington’s new sharpened focus is squarely on the Pacific. The emphasis of aid has shifted from the nebulous concept of ‘poverty alleviation’ to supporting sustainable economic development. This is the best way to secure a stable and prosperous Pacific region. We have a clear sense that, in a region that is as resource-rich as the Pacific, we must be able to support sustainable economic activity at higher levels than has been the case to date. Our objective is to help the energetic and productive members of the community to be more energetic and productive. The economic system must deliver fair and sustainable returns. If it does not we can expect to see instability like the recent burning of Chinese businesses in Port Moresby, Honiara and Nukualofa. For long term sustainability there must be buy into the economic system from the grass roots.

New Zealand has always had a special relationship with the island states of the Pacific. New Zealand and the Pacific nations share a unique combination of history, constitutional links, family and community ties and geographical proximity which binds us together as Pacific peoples. Within that broader relationship, New Zealand has had for some 35 years a particular constitutional and legal relationship with Niue and Cook Islands, which MFAT officialdom recently attempted to extend to Tokelau.

A comparison of the numbers of Cook Islands, Niuean and Tokelauan people living at home or in New Zealand shows unequivocally that the time has come to acknowledge that the “self government in free association”, model has failed to deliver New Zealand levels of income and social services though it does work for the political and bureaucratic elite.

A significant majority of these communities have voted with their feet; over 90% in the Cooks and 98% in Niue. Yet Niue retains 20 members of parliament for a community of 1200 people. One MP was elected with 6 votes being cast.

If Auckland was populated with Cook Islands’ ratio of MP’s then Auckland would have 2,400 members of parliament. No community can afford that level of representation. A core issue is that the large political and bureaucratic establishment has not delivered income or services at a level their communities want. Entities in this situation will never be able to operate an independent foreign policy.

The self governance model has also created inefficient, uneconomic and wasteful governance. The model and emphasis on a plethora of regional meetings combined with UN per diems payable to participants has created financial inducements for the regions leaders and public servants. They maximise their incomes by constant travelling rather than focussing on issues at home and the delivery of services including education, health and infrastructure to their people. Cook Islands parliament passed a law making it a crime to divulge how much parliamentarians spend on travel. I understand it is around $5m i.e. 5% of the national budget. The model has encouraged Niue to employ around 90% of its total population from 18 and 60 years of age in the public service.

The island of Aitutaki, a community of 2000 has 3 members of parliament, a mayor, 3 police and a full time harbour master who copes with a once a month ship visit.

We need to rethink our involvement in those communities and how best we can all meet the aspirations of the people living in them. If we don’t they face the very real threat of not being economically viable and possibly unstable in the future.

New Zealand has a lot to offer in working with these communities to identify new, relevant formats which can meet the reasonable aspirations of these communities – similar to isolated communities here in New Zealand.

For too long the regions’ public servants have used aid funds to build bureaucracy.

They spend too much time and resource on activities of little or no direct benefit to the people they are meant to serve. Instead, they spend time and funding servicing the needs of international organisations.

The self government model provides instutionalised incentives which encourage the political and bureaucratic elite to enjoy the status and trappings of sovereignty abroad rather than addressing the real issues concerning their citizens at home.

New Zealand is providing almost $40 million each year in aid to less than 3000 people living in Tokelau and Niue which is absorbed by dysfunctional systems. It is essential that we take a fresh look at these arrangements because the people adversely affected are the very people we provide aid to.

Some Leaders have taken actions which come close to corruption and do not reflect the behaviour expected from those travelling under the protection of New Zealand Diplomatic Passports.

I don’t have sufficient time to expand on this theme today. Suffice to say communities in Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau are choking on the trappings of pseudo sovereignty which benefit a very few.

Generals are said to always fight their last wars i.e. employ strategies that they found successful in previous situations that are no longer relevant. The “thinking” that went into the creation of the pseudo-states developed in Europe over 100 years ago. It is time to rethink which beliefs, theories and constructs are actually relevant to today’s circumstances and to work constructively to create a more successful set of beliefs, policies, attitudes and institutions to better deliver to those communities. Fresh new thinking is called for.

Sacred cows need to be put to pasture.

New Zealand needs to engage constructively and positively in the process and given that many of these mistakes were created by us it behoves New Zealand to play a leading role in creating a reality that is more productive for the communities of Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau.

The New Zealand government must hold itself accountable for the delivery of acceptable standards of services to all communities of New Zealanders. We must move forward with sensitivity and in a respectful way acknowledging the needs of all communities who hold our citizenship.

Former Niue Premier, Young Vivian, once expressed frustration to me that his government could not match teacher salaries paid in New Zealand and advanced this problem as underpinning the low quality of education in Niue. A similar comment was made to me a few days ago by a parent in Aitutaki who sent his children to New Zealand “because schools in Auckland provided better quality education”. When I asked how the problem could be addressed he said pay our teachers more and train them to NZ standards.

The policies of successive governments in Cook Islands and Niue have not been able to achieve the necessary results on their own to date and I see nothing that to suggest this will change. The people being affected have New Zealand citizenship. Therefore it is our problem as well. While we have rights we also have responsibilities.

Depopulation is inevitable for as long as there is a massive wage differential (in terms of hourly pay rates) and core services between Niue, Cook Islands and Tokelau, on the one hand, and New Zealand on the other. There is a pressing need for a pragmatic way forward to secure parity in pay rates. That would be a strong contribution to allowing New Zealand citizens of Cook Islands, Niue or Tokelauan heritage to make real choices about living as part of the New Zealand community in New Zealand or as part of the wider New Zealand community in Cook Islands, Niue or Tokelau.

New Zealand should offer communities living in Niue, Cook Islands and Tokelau the option of harmonising services in the areas of education, health, infrastructure, law and order and justice. In return, consideration should be given to harmonising tax arrangements between all entities and redirect aid flows from the government to the private sector. That’s where jobs need to be created. It is unlikely that such an arrangement could extend to the payment of welfare benefits but superannuation payments ought to be fully transferable. We should avoid tampering with existing constitutional arrangements so as to avoid costly and extensive litigation between constitutional lawyers.

Whatever the outcome of this aspect of New Zealand’s foreign policy, the broader pursuits of diplomacy and trade will continue. Let me therefore move towards my conclusion by adding that the notion of an ‘independent’ foreign policy creates a clear tension in the conduct of all our international affairs. On the one hand, it involves a quite idealistic set of foreign policy settings.

At the same time, New Zealand’s trade settings remain (quite rightly) very practical and almost mercantile. Aid and development are somewhere in the middle but those who share our citizenship must understand that with rights come responsibilities. The New Zealand government must ensure that all those with its citizenship must have access to similar standards of service delivery.

I do not think it is possible to compartmentalise international relations in this way. Foreign policy decisions can and do have trade and aid implications. Already with this Government you can see moves to integrate the separate strands of aid, trade and foreign policy. It is simply recognising the big, ever more complex environment we operate in.

The concept of an ‘independent foreign policy’ may have been useful when New Zealand was establishing itself as an international actor, rather than simply as extension of Great Britain. But no matter how distasteful it may be, power plays a role in international affairs.

A sound, practical foreign policy recognises that New Zealand will make its own decisions but that a web of competing and sometimes conflicting interests and relationships will always modify that policy.

It is neither a tidy nor a pure process - but ultimately it is the only thing that will work.

I wish you all well for the duration of your 75th Annual Conference.

ends

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