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In A More Dangerous World, Foreign Policy Becomes A Bread And Butter Issue

By Marcus Roberts, Senior Researcher, Maxim Institute*

If the Government has its way, this year’s election campaign will be focussed on “bread and butter” issues. National and ACT will be planning stump speeches on crime, education, and the health system. What won’t be high on any party’s agenda is foreign policy and defence.

This is not surprising. Since the 1980s there’s largely been political consensus on these issues. We have agreed that we should be strong supporters of the “rules-based international order” and multilateral organisations like the UN and the WTO. More broadly, we subconsciously think that the general post-1945 trend of peace and increasing prosperity is the norm and not an historically and geographically contingent exception. This comfortable illusion has spared us the bother of being overly concerned about foreign policy and defence.

But the wider world is suggesting that our illusion may be mugged by reality. As our 2021 Defence Assessment pointed out, great power competition and conflict are increasing. To quote: “New Zealand faces a substantially more challenging and complex strategic environment than it has for decades”. The saga of China’s spy balloon, the mysterious attacks on Iran’s weapons facilities and the ongoing war in Ukraine all demonstrate how unstable and violent the world is.

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But are these not stories about “quarrels in a far-away country, between people of whom we know nothing?” Why does this matter for New Zealand? These “quarrels” matter because international trade generates over half of our GDP. And that trade relies upon the sea lanes being free from piracy, war and blockade so that our goods can go anywhere unmolested and without crippling insurance premiums.

Safe sea lanes depend upon the ability and the will of the USA (and locally, Australia) to protect them. Anything which degrades that capability or distracts that will is detrimental to New Zealand’s interests. So quarrels in far-away countries affect us when they affect our sea lanes. The USA’s weapons stocks have already become dangerously depleted thanks to the unexpectedly high intensity of the Ukrainian war. Moreover, even the most optimistic war game scenarios of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan predict large-scale death and destruction for the combatants.

Want another argument? Sea lanes are vital for the continued operation of our farming sector and our ability to feed the world and ourselves. We imported 2.7m tonnes of fertiliser in 2021, and the loss of only a small share of that imported fertiliser (15%) following the start of the Ukrainian war was “keenly felt.” This is not merely an economic concern; food security is necessary for our national survival. As Lenin once said, “Every society is three meals away from chaos.”

For a long time, New Zealand has enjoyed the luxury of distance to resolve geopolitical dilemmas. Thousands of miles of ocean still largely protect us from the threat of direct invasion. But the world is getting smaller and meaner. If there’s no fertilizer, there’s no bread, much less butter. Our politicians need to start recognizing this. So do we.

*Maxim Institute is an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

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