Wednesday, 21 May 2014


22 May 2014

Despite constant claims that New Zealand follows an independent foreign policy, the truth is that we have never been far from the cringe factor.

From Michael Joseph Savage’s “where Britain goes, we go” sycophancy at the start of World War II, to Helen Clark’s quick signing up to Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 (although not to the subsequent Iraq war) New Zealand governments have always had an eye to the main chance when it comes to foreign policy, lest it impact too adversely on wider trade relationships. (Even the anti-nuclear Lange government pulled some of its punches and worked furiously behind the scenes to protect trade relationships.) That of itself is no bad thing, and an inevitable consequence of our size and place in the world. But let us see it for what it is – and not disguise it as an independent foreign policy.

So it is against that background that the present government’s attitude to drone strikes and intelligence sharing is best considered. The long game is still about New Zealand’s ability to trade, and gain access to markets through bilateral or multilateral agreements, like the TPP. Extra-judicial killings, particularly of New Zealand citizens, are awkward and embarrassing and not our preferred option. Nor is the use of New Zealand sourced intelligence data for such purposes quite what we might have liked, but, remember, the long game is still more important. To that extent, even though nearly half a century separates them, John Key’s approach is little different from Keith Holyoake’s “dovish hawk” style over Vietnam in the 1960s. 

If television videotape footage brought the Vietnam war into people’s living rooms, which rendered the blind faith implicit in the Savage declaration a generation earlier a nullity (even though Holyoake’s Australian counterpart Harold Holt could still win an election landslide in 1966 on the slogan “All the way with LBJ!”), satellite communications and the revelations of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden make fudging over drone strikes and intelligence sharing an impossibility. So, best to ignore the game that cannot be won and come back to the long game – to paraphrase Bill Clinton: “it’s trade, stupid.”  That is why the visit to the White House is timely to push the TPP agenda and our Security Council candidacy, to secure our trade objectives, and why there will be no discussion on drone strikes and intelligence sharing.

Once that balance is re-established and some optimism kindled that there will be success on those fronts, then the “we don’t really like it, but that’s the way it is” stance can be resumed safely. Fair enough, people at home will say. And any external irritation our occasional grumpiness may cause will be mitigated by the fact that we are still in the camp. Just as it was with Holyoake over Vietnam.

He was often ridiculed at home for being too pragmatic, too consensus driven. Today, he is remembered as a canny operator, with his finger firmly on the public pulse. And, most significantly, as the man who won four straight elections.

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