Although the 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP 2016) does not itemise a sequence of equipment purchases, the commitment to expenditure upon identified capabilities lends predictability for defence planners. It reinforces too the value of a small professional defence force as a national asset in advancing NZ interests. Those interests are now in an era of substantial transformation.
DWP 2016 represents the only public NZ document that conveys through the single lens of defence policy, official thinking about the world “big picture”. There is no equivalent political or economic document. DWP 2016 is also the first official statement on NZ defence and security following decisions to strengthen the Prime Minister’s Department with extended national security powers (including external intelligence connections) thus bringing NZ practice into closer line with that in more powerful traditional defence partners although NZ’s own hard power is negligible; and its level of international ambition is different - including from Australia.
DWP 2016 focusses rightly upon the vital importance to NZ of opportunities in Asia. NZ’s greatest 21st century external relations challenge by far lies in navigating successfully the complexities of unfolding US-China relations. DWP 2016 describes China as an important NZ strategic partner with a defence relationship which is ‘gathering momentum’. But when it comes to actual or anticipated NZ military deployments beyond the South Pacific, the preferences remain clearly and emphatically with participation in US led coalitions and joint exercising with traditional partners. Their priorities determine therefore NZ priorities.
NZ obviously needs to keep options on a broad table. An expectation that continuing practical support for US led efforts in the Middle East may indeed lend NZ a freer hand in Asia to make the accommodations required to nourish a strategic partnership with China, might account for what lies behind official thinking in DWP2016. If such considerations do indeed exist, then further NZ commitments in the Middle East will be based not on the merits or wisdom of particular incursions but on wider expediency.
US-NZ defence/security relations are described by DWP 2016 as the best in 30 years. This is assuredly propitious. As a consequence the US will have expectations of NZ, as it rebalances American strategic reach in Asia Pacific. Over those same 30 years however and whilst operating beneath the US radar screen and under successive governments, NZ diplomacy put important runs on the board in Asia, particularly with China. Obviously these runs cannot be subtracted from the NZ scorecard as part of a build back of a relationship with Washington. The clock cannot be simply re-set back to the 1980s, although the DWP language is opaque as it skates around any mention of formal military alliances for NZ.
Those foundations laid in Asia through NZ foreign policy and commercial agility need extension by employing the asset of a small effective NZ professional defence force to deepen and widen partnerships including through interoperability with Asian militaries. The DWP acknowledges this up to a point, but without the same conviction or enthusiasm that it reserves for military partnerships with traditional friends. This is not however a simple either/or choice but it does require the right balance between past and future interests which the practical operational implications of the DWP does not reveal.
The particular DWP emphasis on a NZ duty to protect the rules based international order his noteworthy - particularly in a defence policy document. What actually does it mean? Which or whose rules? The United Nations system is central to rules bases order. The previous 2010 NZ Defence Review identified the UN as the principal source of legitimacy internationally. DWP 2016 stops short of this. It fudges when it notes NZ deployments occur “often as part of initiatives authorised by the UN” but the inference is clear that UN authorisation is no sine qua non for NZ involvement - and the firm preference for involvement with US led coalitions of the willing and not UN peacekeeping (UNPKO) is reflected in current NZ performance.
As at April 2016 NZ ranks 101st amongst 123 UNPKO contributor countries, with just 11 people in the field (Vanuatu has the same number). The UN has 104,000 peacekeepers operating globally. For a UN founder member currently on the UN Security Council and with a serious candidate in the field to be next UN Secretary General, alongside the DWP’s ready profession of support for rules based order, the present record is pretty wretched. The DWP does not express any notion of exploring scope for joint NZ training and commitment to UNPKO operations with Asian governments, as an exercise designed to kill two birds with one stone - improving support for the UN as the authentic custodian of the international rules based system whilst adding another string to the bow of cooperation with Asian governments - amongst the top 10 of UN peacekeeping contributors, 6 are from Asia including China whose efforts all exceed those of NZ.
An implicit sense of class difference surrounds ranking of modern international peace support. Coalition operations involving high intensity combat contingents from NATO members and partners are viewed as performing the crucial first class tasks for global well being; while less endowed military forces from emerging countries shoulder less important second class burdens, which are nonetheless precarious, under the UN blue helmet or regional authority. When judged upon actual results, this class distinction is dubious. It is stretching things mightily to conclude that coalitions of the willing led by the powerful, produce today superior peace and stability outcomes. Post conflict reconstruction moreover is crucial task better suited to effectively endowed UN or NGO responsibility.
There is a broader dimension to the DWP emphasis on the NZ ‘responsibility to protect’ international rules based order. Equivalence of obligation inside a rules based system that itself rests upon principled negotiation open to all, is a bedrock principle that NZ staunchly upholds. Amongst those important traditional defence partners identified by the DWP, there persist enduring instincts for “exceptionalism” which entails self-exemption by the powerful from rules which are the subject of principled negotiation but which are deemed to infringe their sovereignty or national interest. The list includes treaties on a nuclear test ban, on arms control, on the strengthening of international justice, on torture, on various human rights conventions etc. The US self absolves America from some 40 important multilateral treaties. It is certain that a viable effective 21st century international rules system absolutely requires that exceptionalism be set aside by powerful UN founder members and others.
It is crucial that China in particular accepts the obligations of an international rules based system, and resists the temptation of exceptionalism. For this to happen it requires China be allowed a place in international management and agenda setting that reflects its weight and influence in the 21st century. There is a clear reluctance amongst powerful founders of the system, which are identified in the DWP as NZ’s favoured defence partners, to create the space for this vitally important change. This foot dragging will distort the international rules framework and creates similar stress on the system as do terrorism, state failure, resource competition which the DWP rightly identifies as threats to good order. NZ diplomacy needs particular courage to speak that truth to power.
An effective professional defence force is therefore a decided NZ national asset to assist our adjustment to a more hybrid 21st century international order where western values are not considered supreme, where differing versions of capitalism, democracy and governance prevail and where respect for diversity is critical. NZ is inevitably moving into a different ‘comfort zone’ internationally even while DWP 2016 signals a preference to remain in essential respects within our 20th century ‘comfort zone’ as the junior partner in an anglosphere - a sort of parallel empire of a common tongue. No-one advocates throwing the baby out with the bathwater but the diehard operational preferences conveyed in DWP 2016 for the NZDF directly impact the integrity of NZ’s maturing international relations and adjustments of its foreign policy.
Terence O’Brien is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies. This is a slightly modified version of a presentation given at the 2016 Defence White Paper Symposium in Wellington, 4 July 2016.
Photo credit NZDF: Australian, US, New Zealand and Chinese military personnel taking part in Exercise Tropic Twilight in Tonga, July 2016.