News that Minister Todd McClay will be seeking assurances on New Zealand’s trade position from his EU and UK counterparts following the pro-Brexit referendum vote reinforces a predictable focus. As night precedes day, pre-referendum coverage in New Zealand focused on the economic implications of a leave vote. And as day then turns into night, a continuation of the same pattern is to be expected.
But Brexit is going to be a much bigger and wider problem for New Zealand because of what it means for the western commitment to a global order founded on international cooperation. Britain is now set to exit the European Union, which, for all its faults, has been the deepest experiment in voluntary cooperative interstate relations the world has ever seen. In turn an already strained EU has been robbed of one of the five permanent members of the UNSC, and one of its most pragmatic and sensible participants. Despite the efforts of the remaining 27 powers to rally around a flag with one less star, whatever remains of the EU’s aspirations for significant global influence is fast disappearing. Likewise, an already diminished United States has lost its chief EU partner in the promotion of global rules. A major new crack in the trans-Atlantic commitment to sustained international leadership has been opened. And if you think this doesn’t matter, just think for a moment about Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Ukraine, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, human rights, and cyber-security.
But New Zealanders should think beyond what this means for Britain. They should worry more about Brexit’s corrosive effects on the assumptions about international relations on which so much of New Zealand's foreign policy has relied. One of these has come in David Capie’s gloomy take on Brexit: the presumption on the part of New Zealand diplomats (and most of its leaders) that countries can actually and ironically have more individual influence when they work as a team than when they work alone. Another assumption is that complex international problems are best dealt with by negotiation with close partners rather than a shortsighted pursuit of illusory unilateral advantage.
Those guiding assumptions also include the argument that economic interdependence reduces the risks of conflict. This foundational argument lies at the heart of the European project which Britain is now departing. And it is very similar to the argument which lead John Key to argue at the launch of the Defence White Paper that war in Asia between the US and China was unlikely.
All of these assumptions are of course precisely that. It would be churlish to suggest these assumptions are always matched by experience. But if New Zealand cannot rely on major powers to share these views, then we will need to review our foreign policy priorities for a world that is more suspicious and defensive than open and optimistic. And we know which one of these approaches Mr Trump has in mind for the world's biggest power should he win in November.
New Zealand's world would be reasonably bearable if all we had to worry about was some medium term market turbulence including from the prospects of a British recession. Or if the main concern for New Zealanders is a UK that is no longer the jumping off place to the continent that it has been and if British passports no longer offer these advantages.
But these are small pains compared to the harm that can come New Zealand’s way. Even if they believe Trump only has a slender chance in winning the big prize, the makers of New Zealand’s foreign policy should already be eyeing an alternative set of working principles. Because the liberal international order in which New Zealand has made its way since the end of the Second World War has just received a major blow from Britain’s voters. And we really don’t really know where the dismemberment will stop.
Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He can be reached at: email@example.com