Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave us the clearest sense yet of the direction New Zealand’s coalition government will take in foreign policy in a speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs in Wellington this week.
Any Prime Minister’s first big foreign policy speech attracts interest, but given Ardern sits at the head of an ideologically diverse three-party government, her address drew closer scrutiny than most. The Prime Minister faced the dual challenge of laying out a fresh new foreign policy vision while juggling the diverse interests of her New Zealand First and Green Party partners.
In this, the speech was largely successful.
Second, the PM used her speech to highlight several “points of difference” that she said will distinguish the new government’s foreign policy from that of the Key-English years.
On trade, Ardern said New Zealand would continue to be a strong advocate for liberalization but emphasised the need to ensure future trade agreements deliver benefits for all. Drawing on her experience with CPTPP negotiations, she talked of an inclusive and sustainable trade agenda, pledging to more openly pursue the interests of Māori, women and New Zealand’s underdeveloped regions.
She also highlighted two issues where she wants to see New Zealand do more and stand up for its values on the global stage.
The first is an issue dear to the hearts of the government’s Labour-Green base: disarmament. Ardern announced the reinstatement of the portfolio of Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control axed by the previous National government in 2011. She said New Zealand would move quickly to ratify the Nuclear Weapons Convention and would make sure the country’s voice is heard on chemical weapons issues and the spread of conventional arms.
The second priority, climate change, had also been well signalled: on the campaign trail Ardern had called it “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”. One place where it will doubtless play a greater role is in the new government’s desire to do more in the Pacific. Foreign Minister (and New Zealand First leader) Winston Peters has already indicated a desire to increase aid spending, partly in response to the growing number of new actors seeking influence in the region. More money to help Pacific states with climate change adaptation should give New Zealand greater leverage. That will make Mr Peters happy and also provide the Greens with a foreign policy win.
If the first half of her speech was about new priorities, the second was about old friends and established rules. Ardern said “We will look to strengthen partnerships with long-standing friends who share our values.” Australia was described as “a vital source of resilience for our economy” and a “key partner” in the wider world. New Zealand’s “special relationship” with the United Kingdom was touted (and a potential NZ-UK FTA was welcomed), and despite differences with Washington over trade and climate change, the prime minister said America’s “capacity for ideas and the energy of its people give it enormous scope to help shape a better world.”
On China, however, the tone was different. While noting China had the potential to add momentum to collective efforts on climate change and trade liberalization, Ardern said “My government will speak honestly and openly with our friends in Beijing. Whether it is about human rights, pursuing our trade interests, or the security and stability of our region.” Notably among the list of growing challenges to the rules-based order, were “cyber intrusions which threaten our economic interests” and “challenges to maritime rules and norms”.
This emphasis on values and defending the rules-based system will have been welcome in Washington, Canberra, and Tokyo but what (if anything) it means on issues like the South China Sea or allegations about China’s efforts at political influence remains to be seen.
What was missing? Anyone hoping to get a sense of the coalition government’s attitude to the use of force will have come away none the wiser. There was no mention of New Zealand’s deployment in Iraq, of UN peacekeeping, combatting terrorism, or even a greater interest in conflict resolution or mediation. Looming difficult decisions about defence modernization also went unmentioned (hard to reconcile with naming a Minister of Disarmament perhaps?)
It was also surprising to see such short shrift given to wider Asia. In an era of heightened strategic competition New Zealand has found itself moving closer to the small and middle-sized nations of Southeast Asia, none of which are liberal democracies. There was no mention of ASEAN, the East Asia Summit or APEC, which was, after all, where the Prime Minister made her first appearance on the world stage. Nor was there reference to warmer bilateral ties with Singapore or Japan, despite Tokyo’s leadership on CPTPP and its important role in the South Pacific.
To be fair, not everyone can get a mention in the prime minister’s first foreign policy speech (the EU also missed out, despite the priority apparently being given to an FTA). But it is in Asia where a values-based foreign policy will face its greatest challenge. Asia is home to New Zealand’s most important markets, multiple rising powers, and it is also where established rules and long-standing institutions are changing, whether we like it or not.
Ardern has proposed a recalibration in New Zealand’s foreign policy to give it a less utilitarian hue. But navigating Asia’s increasingly complex geopolitics will require dealing with a range of states, big and small, many of which do not share our values. New Zealand’s new idealism is likely to retain a healthy pragmatic streak.
David Capie is the Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University. This is a slightly revised version of a piece that originally ran at the Lowy Interpreter.