Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Is John Key remaking New Zealand's foreign policy?

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US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister John Key. Photo / AP
US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister John Key. Photo / AP

Is New Zealand an independent global citizen, or a US ally in all but name? Answering that question has been the task of journalists and commentators as John Key visited New York and Washington last week. The visit was overshadowed to a degree by the domestic agenda - notably the Donghua Liu donations issue. But Key's visit was fascinating for because it provided a contrast of an apparent New Zealand independence in New York, at the United Nations, and a seemingly new alignment with the United States in its position on the crisis in Iraq.

New Zealand and Iraq

Will New Zealand support US military action? John Key's trip to the United States coincided with the growing Iraq crisis, which has seen the ISIS group taking control of the northern city of Mosul and move closer to Baghdad. In New York, Key played down the likelihood of action becoming necessary and also seemed to say that New Zealand would only become involved with a UN mandate: 'As things play out New Zealand would always look to the [United Nations] Security Council for its view and its sanction of anything that may happen. So you can never say never in a world where the Security Council decides that Iraq needs support of some sort - engineers or whatever it might be' - see Tracy Watkins' No New Zealand forces to Iraq, says Key.

But as Key moved to Washington, this stance began to shift, in part being forced by comments made by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

The remarks are laid out in Tracy Watkins' article US: NZ stands with us over Iraq: 'Asked at a joint press conference with Key if the US expected New Zealand's moral or practical support, Kerry suggested that was not in question."We know our friends, we don't have to ask, this is one where we know that New Zealand stands with us." He also left the door open to seeking practical support from friends and partners including New Zealand, saying that was one of the issues he would be canvassing on his international mission'.

For a clarification of Key's views on Iraq after his meeting with Barack Obama, see the 10-minute interviews he gave to TVNZ's Q+A and TV3's The Nation. In The Nation interview, Key was cagey about New Zealand support, but laid the ground for implicit New Zealand backing of US airstrikes against the ISIS group: 'we've designated them [a] terrorist group and if it was at the invitation of the Iraqi government, we certainly wouldn't condemn it'.

The Herald summarises New Zealand's likely involvement in any intervention in Iraq in an editorial: 'This Government may not be anxious to support drone strikes or other forms of tactical support, but it would be unlikely to oppose them. The Prime Minister's meetings in Washington with the President, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, not to mention the secret visit he appears to have made to the National Security Agency, all signify a return to a normal relationship. We may no longer have an active alliance but New Zealand is a natural partner in intelligence sharing and diplomatic efforts' - see: Intervention in Iraq would worsen crisis.

Meanwhile, in an editorial for the Manawatu Standard, Mathew Grocott is sceptical about the merits of any New Zealand involvement - see: Staying out of Iraq seems a smart move. The Green Party is arguing for UN involvement in the crisis - see TVNZ's Greens say action in Iraq must be UN driven.

Elsewhere, TV3's Patrick Gower asks whether New Zealand's SAS could be involved in Iraq - see: Will Key rule out SAS Iraq training role?.

New Zealand's Security Council bid

New Zealand's apparent shifting position on Iraq as John Key moved from New York to Washington may well have been tactical. In New York, the main task was to lobby for New Zealand's bid to take a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The events in New York, which included Key's speech to a New Zealand-hosted party for 200 diplomats, are summarised in an article by Audrey Young - see: PM parties before heavy schedule in US. Key told Young that New Zealand was 'a small country but one that brings an independent foreign policy, is good at listening and is good at trying to find out all of the facts of a situation, a country that is not afraid to stand up for what is right and to take positions'.

Elsewhere, several useful backgrounders on the lengths that New Zealand has gone to support the Security Council bid are worth reading, such as Tracy Watkins' Security Council bid turns ugly, who notes 'there have been huge resources directed at the campaign, including new diplomatic posts opened in Africa and the Caribbean, the diversion of considerable resources from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a time of budget restraint and staffing turmoil, and the appointment of several special envoys including former prime minister Jim Bolger and former Commonwealth secretary general Don McKinnon'.

The Herald's Audrey Young also considers New Zealand's efforts in Based on effort we should be a shoo in, and she finds out the views of Helen Clark, currently United Nations Development Programme head in UN bid means extra work for NZ, says Clark.

Meanwhile, the NBR's editor Nevil Gibson asks What's so cool about the Security Council anyway? (paywalled), and concludes 'the Security Council's peace-keeping role will always be sub-optimal while non-democratic countries, some of which actively support terrorism or are outright dictatorship, hold the majority, whether elected or not'.

What has been the political reaction to the Security Council bid? There has been surprisingly little comment at all. In one of the few responses, the Green Party's foreign policy spokesperson, Kennedy Graham, supports the UN Security Council bid but says the money and resources - including lavish trips to New Zealand for UN diplomats - invested spent on the bid is too high - see: Public interest on UN bid says - 'Show us the money, John'.

Also related to the UN is Helen Clark's own future, and talk of the possibility of her becoming the UN's next Secretary General. Massey University international relations lecturer Damien Rogers says becoming Secretary General would 'make Helen Clark the most visible New Zealander in contemporary world affairs, playing a role in addressing questions of international security and peace for up to 10 years. This would bring more enduring benefits than a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council and would magnify New Zealand's place on anyone's map' - see: UN top job would give status to NZ's place in world.

Intelligence

Another issue raised during John Key's US trip has been New Zealand's role in intelligence-sharing. Audrey Young revealed that John Key had visited the headquarters of the controversial National Security Agency (NSA), in a visit not on his published schedule - see: Key's off-the-record visit to controversial spy HQ.

Also on intelligence, Tracy Watkins reports on New Zealand's reintegration into the 'Five Eyes' intelligence network in 2009, on which John Key was vague, but his US counterparts were not - see: NZ welcomed back to spy network.

Blogger No Right Turn is critical of the news and John Key's real or feigned ignorance, asking 'how can the Prime Minister (and Minister in charge of the GCSB) not know about it? Did he just not notice? Or did the spies not tell him (effectively running their own foreign policy without any democratic mandate whatsoever)?' - see: How can the PM not know about this?.

Trade

Trade was also high on the agenda during the US visit, particularly the role of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). The news angle was that the agreement is unlikely to be concluded this year - see Adam Bennett's TPP unlikely to be finalised this year - PM. Labour adviser Rob Salmond is pessimistic about the prospects of any deal in his post, TPP deal on rocks. Surprise!, and in another piece says New Zealand's lack of bargaining chips could prove to be its downfall - see: Free trade fundies.

Former National Cabinet minister Wayne Mapp outlines the probable contents of any deal in Free trade: The end of the cosy arrangement?, and suggests that Labour support for a deal might be rocky after the election because of the contents of any deal: 'There will be a long drawn-out phase down of tariffs and quotas in agricultural products. The timing of the phase down will be dictated by Japan and the United States, and it will extend over many years, perhaps as many as twenty. Copyright terms will be extended to 70 years or more. State trading entities like Pharmac could lose at least some of their exclusive rights. There will be an international tribunal for major investment disputes'.

Meanwhile, blogger and former Labour candidate Josie Pagani is receptive to a deal, but emphasises the deal has to have bottom lines: 'When it comes to signing trade deals there are two principles which should never be up for negotiation; the net benefit to your country has to outweigh any concessions, otherwise what's the point? And you never trade away fundamentals, like the right to legislate to protect your environment, the health of your citizens, or your education system' - see: Acronyms and secret handshakes no way to sell a trade deal.

Nuclear ships issue

Perhaps because it was John Key's second visit to the White House - or perhaps because there were more substantive issues on the agenda - the perennial issue of New Zealand's ban of US nuclear ships seemed to be only a minor detail on this US visit. Nevertheless, it still became an issue on two occasions, the first when John Kerry mentioned the safety of US ships in a speech to a New Zealand reception in New York - see Audrey Young's Kerry raises n-word at reception.

Tracy Watkins quotes John Key's strong reaction against any tensions, no doubt aware of the sensitivity of the issue to voters in an election year: 'We have anti nuclear legislation and New Zealanders wear it as a badge of honour. There ain't any time in the future of [New Zealand] that we're ever going to nuclear power, nuclear weapons ... or nuclear anything; it's just not happening' - see Tracy Watkins' Key emphasises NZ's anti-nuclear stance.

The second occasion was when Barack Obama revealed New Zealand would be able to dock a ship at Pearl Harbour for the first time since the nuclear dispute - see his comments in Audrey Young's wider article Max Key gets special mention from Obama. Highlighting the sensitivity of the nuclear ship issue, leftwing blogger 'the Jackal' is critical of even a suggestion from Key that a nuclear ship visit 'might happen' one day: 'By even hinting at nuclear warships visiting New Zealand, National are in fact showing that they have little regard for the people they're meant to represent and far more consideration of the United States' foreign policy' - see Nuclear warships on the agenda.

Has New Zealand come in from the cold?

Away from current issues, every New Zealand Prime Minister's visit to the United States is analysed for its overall level of 'warmth'. The verdict on this year's visit seems to be very positive, with an inevitable focus on the personal friendship between Key and Obama - see Audrey Young's Key and Obama: How golf cemented friendship.

In another piece, Young judges the visit on 'the length of the meeting, the length of the spiel after the meeting, the tone of the statements, the degree of personal attention. On all counts, Key's 2014 encounter at the White House was an upgrade on 2011, not just because the meeting was longer and Obama spoke for six minutes instead of two' - see PM wins friends at risk of making an enemy.

In a similar review, Tracy Watkins emphasises the length of Key's meeting with Obama and the similarities between the leaders in The new Special Relationship: 'Key and Obama have clearly established a rapport. They are roughly the same age, share a passion for golf and both have a bolt-hole in Hawaii where they escape with family. Last Christmas, the pair spent a day on the golf course with Key's son Max while holidaying in Hawaii. Obama name-checked Max to the world's media after yesterday's meeting.' The fact that Obama has voiced a desire to visit New Zealand is also highlighted by Watkins in President Obama plans New Zealand visit.

Notable for being one of the few more critical items was a discussion between leftwing academic Jane Kelsey and commentator David Slack on TV3's Paul Henry Show - watch the video: How cosy should NZ be getting to the US?. In this, Kelsey argues 'Those of us old enough will remember that we had a big fight for our independence of foreign policy, and it stood us well... nuclear policies, not being as sucked in as Australia into the war in Iraq and now we've ended up on the coattails of the US with some pretty scary possibilities'.

Other foreign policy issues

Away from John Key's US visit, but related to foreign policy in the last week has been the issue of refugees. With the news that the world now has 50 million refugees, the most since World War Two, refugee campaigner Murdoch Stephens argues for a substantial increase in New Zealand's refugee quota: 'we need to look at what the rest of the world does in comparison to us. This is not pretty. In the last year the UN ranked New Zealand as 88th in the world for hosting refugees per capita... Doubling the quota to 1500 places will not make us Sweden. The Swedes, as well as other Scandinavian countries, host more than 20 times the amount of refugees as New Zealand per capita. Doubling the quota won't even put us on a par with Australia, who doubled their quota under the Labor government, then cut it back under the Liberals' - see: Fate of refugees shouldn't be a lottery. A wider look at the status of refugees is also provided on the Daily Blog's 50 million reasons for some fresh thinking on refugees.

Peacekeeping is also in the news, with a review of operations being released under the Official Information Act to Fairfax journalists Michael Field and Michael Fox - see: NZ reviews peacekeeping. In their article, they report 'New Zealand wants to give up doing peacekeeping work for the sake of being a good global citizen and instead pick missions that benefit our international interests. A review of peacekeeping options also suggests dropping a formal guideline that peace support operations (PSOs) must "be acceptable to the New Zealand public".'

The review, by the staff of the ministers of foreign affairs, defence and police, released under the Official Information Act, says the military should 'seek opportunities' to work aboard with Australia, the United States, Britain and Canada'. Reaction from the Defence Minister, Jonathan Coleman, to the review is included in Newswire's Peacekeeping 'should be in NZ's interest'.

Blogger No Right Turn is critical of the proposed changes to peacekeeping operations - see: A major shift in our foreign policy: 'what really takes the cake is the removal of the requirement that military operations "be acceptable to the New Zealand public". No, they don't provide any justification, because there cannot be one. It runs contrary to the fundamental principles of democratic and accountable government. But it is entirely consistent with the unaccountable, autocratic mindset which infects our foreign policy community, which sees us as ignorant peasants to be ruled, rather than citizens who rule ourselves'.

Foreign affairs satire

Finally, for a lighter look at John Key's visit to Washington, see the satirical pieces by the Herald's Toby Manhire in Mr Keys goes to Washington: the White House briefings, and blogger Scott Yorke's In the Oval Office. And for a look at how political cartoonists and photographers have portrayed John Key's visit to New York and Washington, see the compilation on my own blog post, Cartoons of John Key and the USA.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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