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  • Writer's pictureIan Fletcher

Foreign Affairs


This week has seen two events of notable significance.

The first was the publication of the new Government’s 100-day plan. It’s not a plan, it’s a to-do list, and it’ll take a lot more than 100 days. But I digress.

The second event was the death of Henry Kissinger. As many know, Kissinger was the towering intellectual figure in international affairs through the late 1960s and early 1970s. For many, that’s a long time ago.

Henry Kissinger, one of the world’s highest regarded diplomats, died recently aged 100. But what would he make of New Zealand’s diplomatic position? wonders Ian Fletcher.

I’ve decided not to write about the new Government’s missed opportunities and already-squandered mandate. Another time. Others will fill that gap meanwhile. But Kissinger interests me, because he shone a light on foreign affairs in ways many New Zealanders find distasteful, and yet which are important if we are to see ourselves in the world as we really are, and take the steps we need to look after our interests.

Kissinger’s back-story is remarkable, but can briefly told: born in Germany in 1923 to a Jewish family, he (and they) fled Nazi-ism to the US, where he served in the US army in WW2 and played a role in post-war government in Germany. An academic career followed, leading to a political career made most famous as Nixon’s Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. He was instrumental in almost all the big events of that period.

But it’s his ideas that really shine through. His academic work focused on a deep study of the peace made in Europe at the end of the Napoleonic wars. His work on this period (which I confess I read regularly) has been condemned as laying the intellectual foundations for a nasty ‘realpolitik’ – that is, justifying doing dirty deals or murky deeds to advance one’s own interests. Maybe so.

But its more than that, and it matters to New Zealand. Kissinger understood two things: First, peace is better than war. Kissinger wrote about Napoleon, and had first-hand experience of the Second World War. He knew that war is ghastly, messy, bloody and – above all – randomly, chaotically violent.

The second is that ‘Anarchy is worse than Tyranny’. The medieval Persian philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali believed one year of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny. The American writer Robert Kaplan has recently written on this is a stunning book ‘The Tragic Mind’ that also shows why we need to study history, Shakespeare, and classical Greek drama.

New Zealanders often see the world differently: imagining that foreign affairs can be a matter of values and ethics, and that New Zealand can have a ‘principled’ foreign policy. I fear this is a delusion. Where do we actually stand?

Firstly, we have no physical neighbours, but we depend on sea and air transport for just about everything. So, the security of those sea and air routes, and the security of destination countries is of primary importance. That means Australia, and to a lesser extent the US and Japan – the three biggest naval powers in our region. If they can’t or won’t protect shipping and air routes in our part of the world, modern life in New Zealand would become precarious.

Secondly, as I’ve said before, our other challenge is that we’re economically exposed to China, which is in low-level conflict with those countries we depend on for our naval security (and much else). Low level conflict is manageable; actual war would be disastrous – not because fighting would reach here. It wouldn’t. But it would be a naval war. Efforts to command the seas north of us would really affect shipping and air services that we and Australia depend on, potentially for a long time. Some say it’d never happen, right? Since 1900 there have been five major wars in the North Pacific, as well as the convulsions in China in the period up to 1949. These things do happen.

New Zealand can try and stay out of global conflicts, but, if Antarctica is seen as a desired territory, then New Zealand waters would be part of a protagonist’s likely access route

And if China itself has an internal political disturbance, the resulting disruption would affect our biggest market, and Australia’s biggest market. New Zealand’s prosperity is in many ways a bet – both direct and indirect – on the Chinese Communist Party staying in power, and not talking against us. We can’t afford to be critical of the way minorities in China are treated, for example. That’s realpolitik.

What leverage do we have? Almost none. Our military capability is charming, but irrelevant. Our views on world affairs are largely ignored. In the past we have been effective in shaping global thinking and arrangements on Antarctica, as we have claims and because our geography gives us a blocking position on much of the access to Antarctica. But that’s an exception.

In the past we have tagged along with our ‘traditional’ allies without much thought, making military contributions that were serious up to the Korean War, and token thereafter. We’ve played up our role in the Pacific. But that’s turned into a tussle between China and Australia. We’re anxious bit-part players.

What would Kissinger say? He started by distinguishing between legitimate and revolutionary regimes. Legitimate ones were simply those whose demands could be accommodated by others. As his obituary in the FT on Thursday said, his ‘realpolitik’ was that success required taking the interests of all parties into consideration, but not necessarily the interests of those not holding power. As a country, we don’t hold much power.

What could go wrong? Three things, all of which we need to consider carefully. The first would be conflict in the North Pacific, as discussed. We need a plan for survival if shipping and air routes are severed for a period. The second is that our allies ask us to do things that really annoy China, so there are economic sanctions against us. And the third is Antarctica. Militarisation of Antarctica would be an actual threat to New Zealand as our waters would be part of a protagonist’s likely access route. We don’t just need a plan; we need a navy for that. The choice is whether it’s the US navy, or the Australians. It probably too late to build our own.

Without plans and without the capacity to act, we don’t have a real foreign policy; it’s just a set of opinions. One senior New Zealand diplomat once said to me that “We’re really just a non-voting State of Australia”. It’s not that bad. It might even be OK.

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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