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  • Writer's pictureIan Fletcher

An Independent Foreign Policy?


I’ve been struck by the response to the deployment of six (yes, just six) NZDF people to the Middle East, to ‘help’ in the response to attacks on shipping passing into the Red Sea en route to and from the Suez Canal. I’ve been surprised at the level of media interest. And I’ve been disappointed by the ill-informed and self-regarding nature of much of the comment. So, what should we think?

This Israeli-owned cargo ship was set alight following a Houthi attack in November.

The immediate context is the Hamas-Israel war, and the regional tensions bubbling away in the Middle East for decades. The wider context is New Zealand’s claims to have an independent foreign policy, and what that actually means.

Before looking at both, and asking what we ought to be thinking and doing, I should declare my own interest: in 1983, the New Zealand Government sent me to learn Arabic. I wasn’t very good at it, but I made some life-long friends, studying in London and Syria, and living and working in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. My teachers were Palestinian, and they imparted their family stories along with some very good language lessons, in some cases literally weeping as they did.

The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 last year was intended to provoke an Israeli reaction to disrupt an emerging peace deal with Saudi Arabia. Israel has certainly retaliated, and the peace deal is on hold

The Houthi rebel army of Yemen has made it their mission to disrupt international shipping routes through the Red Sea and so New Zealand has made a display of support to its allies by sending six military personal to help offer protection.

But look at what hasn’t happened: apart from words, Hamas has found it has no Arab friends actually prepared to act other than the Houthis in Yemen. Egypt has sealed its border to keep Palestinians out. Israel, Lebanon and Hizballah (the huge Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon) have exchanged fire, but that border has been managed so war has not followed.

Iran might have been provoked into war. They support Hamas, up to a point. And they certainly hate Israel. But Iran has, in my view, done the minimum to maintain its anti-Israel credentials and no more. The recent attack on a US post in Eastern Syria where three soldiers died seems to have been the result of a tragic defensive error.

Hamas’ attack has united Israel (where politics was very divided, and will be again). And Hamas’ mishandling of the attack itself (sexual violence and atrocities suggest a real lack of discipline) as well as the fact that they couldn’t locate all the hostages during the aftermath has sullied their narrative, including in Arab countries.

Israel is using extreme violence, and has lost a lot of international support as a result. But it turns out they can afford to. It may be that Hamas’ tactical victory has set the scene for their strategic isolation and defeat. A sort of Pearl Harbor moment.

Which leads to the attacks on ships, and New Zealand’s minimal involvement. The attacks are by a Yemeni group called Houthis, who are a Shiite group, Iran-funded, well equipped, and experienced as a result of a nine-year civil war where they have seen off the Saudis, the UAE and their Yemeni compatriots (Yemen has never been united; this is a local as well as regional war). They say they’re looking to support Hamas. Iran is likely egging them on.

They have much of the world economy by the throat. A large portion of East-West trade goes by their front door to and from the Suez Canal. A few well-aimed missiles have caused huge disruption.

Does that affect New Zealand? Yes. Costs will rise for our exports and imports, a bit. Journey times are longer. We depend absolutely on freedom of navigation for merchant ships in distant waters. And we depend absolutely on the US and (closer to home) the Australian navies to protect that freedom. As I’ve said before, even a partial risk to navigation leads to higher marine insurance costs, and big risks lead to the withdrawal of cover. No ships, no trade. No trade, no life as we know it. Freedom of navigation is a vital national interest for New Zealand, arguably above all others. Our remaining ally, Australia, is in the same boat. We can usually ride their coattails.

The Houthi army, seen here on parade in Yemen’s capital city Sana’a, is the only Palestinian ally of significance who has been willing to act during the latest Israel-Hamas war.

So, where does this leave our independent foreign policy? I distinguish between what we think and what we do. We can think for ourselves about world affairs. That’s opinion, not policy. Our opinions matter little in the rest of the world. What can we actually do, with the minimal resources we’ve chosen to invest in defence, and our limited economic weight? A senior MFAT official – agreeing with this analysis some years ago – told me pithily that New Zealand’s real foreign policy was “to do as little as we could, as late as possible”. Sending six NZDF people to the Middle East this last week fits that exactly. The government has chosen to talk it up; the truth is that it’s just a gesture. Nothing more.

There is claimed (by the Opposition parties) to be a danger that we will be ‘embroiled’ in a wider Middle East conflict. I think this is fanciful. There is every sign that the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and – crucially – Iran are determined to avoid a wider conflict. Were a wider war to break out, fighting would not reach our shores, and we haven’t the resources to send ships or planes even if we wanted to. It’s shipping disruption we’d need to fear, and that would also affect most of Asia. That would be a really big global crisis, which would get fixed fast. Our six-person gesture seems pretty risk-free to me.

Finally, what about the rights and wrongs of the conflict? I learned back in 1983 that there are no easy good guy/bad guy categories in the Middle East, and that simplistic judgments are usually the result of ignorance or prejudice. I think there are things we can do on the humanitarian side, and we should. But we should acknowledge that only treats the symptoms. It’s for those that live there to eventually tackle the causes. Not us.

Ian Fletcher is a former head of New Zealand’s security agency, the GCSB, chief executive of the UK Patents Office, free trade negotiator with the European Commission and biosecurity expert for the Queensland government. These days he is a commercial flower grower in the Wairarapa and consultant to the apiculture industry with NZ Beekeeping Inc.


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