New Zealanders, and their governments, like foreign policy to be about the making and keeping of agreements. This is evident when a new trade agreement is signed, as it was recently with Korea to the Key government’s evident delight. One can only imagine the party among New Zealand’s trade negotiators should the Trans-Pacific Partnership get across the line. And this penchant for formal accords comes across in what we expect from other countries. One of New Zealand’s first acts as a temporary member of the UN Security Council was to make a clarion call for greater pressure to be applied by the great powers to encourage Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to return to the task of coming to a two states agreement.
As a small state New Zealand benefits from a strong rules based order which, through negotiated agreements and a growing body of law, limits what the strong can extract from the weak. A preference for negotiated settlement also has strong domestic connotations, including the Waitangi Tribunal process. It is also to be found in the history of New Zealand’s approach to international organisations, including the arguments made by Wellington in the interwar years that the great powers needed to take their League of Nations obligations more seriously as aggression was rising. It is there too in New Zealand’s repeated calls for the great powers today to take their disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty more seriously. We should expect more of these calls to be made as the NPT Review Conference meets very soon in New York, not least because New Zealand has the role of coordinating the pro-disarmament New Agenda Coalition.
In many cases the best that can be hoped for from the international community of states are efforts to help manage crises, to help reduce their contagion (as in the case of ISIS) and to help reduce the prospects of more serious and dramatic escalation (as in the case of Ukrainian-Russian relations, and perhaps Russia-NATO relations). We do not solve complex internal security challenges in the South Pacific or elsewhere for that matter. At best, in the case of Solomon Islands or in Afghanistan, external action can sometimes help increase the chances that serious internal conflict in the future is averted. And there are no guarantees. When formal agreements do come about, they cannot work without an underlying commitment to cooperation among the parties. A finalised nuclear deal with Iran, if it comes to pass, would be by no means the end of a long and difficult process and reverses are only to be expected.
In this sort of world the hope for a world without armed conflict is mainly a rhetorical one. The real aim is for a world where armed conflict, where it occurs, is as limited as it can be. The hope is not that rival factions in civil conflict will bury all of their differences, but instead that in pursuing their competition at a less violent level they will not prevent some measure of effective government from taking place. The idea is not to compare military and non-military measures towards ISIS as if either could ever be a ‘solution’, a superficial dichotomy raised by at least one audience member at a recent public debate in Wellington.
This is a world where a little bit of crisis management is as much as one might expect from the United Nations Security Council, from the United States as the world’s leader powers, from the other great powers including China, and from their respective partners and adversaries. That sets up a large gap between New Zealand’s aspirations and the realities of the system. It is unlikely that we will finish our two years in New York having brought about radical change in the capacity of the Security Council to facilitate and enforce international agreements. If we have nudged things along a little, and helped limit crises as they rise, will that be taken as successful tenure? Some New Zealanders might think not. But it is probably about as much as we can realistically hope for.
Photo credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe