Labour prime ministers dream of emulating Michael Joseph Savage, but usually on social policy. For Jacinda Ardern, it's sending New Zealand soldiers to war in Europe.
It makes her New Zealand's most traditionalist foreign policy prime minister since Sir Robert Muldoon sent HMNZS Canterbury to join the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean in 1982 to free up another British frigate for the Falklands.
After Muldoon, New Zealand has sought to operate militarily only with United Nations backing. Jim Bolger, Dame Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark's 15-year commitment to the former Yugoslavia began as part of a UN peacekeeping force and involved implicit neutrality.
Ardern's deployment to Europe of 50 military personnel, eight logistics specialists and nine intelligence officers is altogether different.
Lest we think moral considerations are driving decisions, New Zealand hasn't provided lethal assistance to other countries in recent strife, at least without UN authorisation.
Instead, the Government says the deployment is motivated by Russia breaching the international rules-based order. But that has been eroding since the rise of Xi Jinping in China, Donald Trump's vandalism of multilateral institutions like the WTO and two decades of Vladimir Putin's military adventurism.
Moreover, New Zealand can't really claim our deployment is consistent with the rules-based order either. The Russian veto means it doesn't have UN authorisation. According to the Royal New Zealand Navy's Rear Admiral James Gilmour, it indicates "that our status as a neutral country has shifted".
In reality, Ardern is working hand in glove with our Five Eyes partners and Nato, especially with the British, to whom our $7.5 million for weapons and ammunition will be paid. It builds on New Zealand's partnership with Nato in Afghanistan, after that operation lost broad UN support.
The upshot is that Ardern is the first prime minister to send our military to a true European war for more than 80 years, when Savage declared in 1939 that "where [Britain] goes, we go; where she stands, we stand". A similar sentiment seems to prevail in 2022.
Presumably, Ardern has information that our Five Eyes partners, voters or both insist on the European deployment, because it contradicts the international-relations and defence strategy preferred by much of Wellington's foreign-policy establishment, and outlined in writing by her Government over four years.
Coarsely, a big chunk of that establishment has believed since 1984 that New Zealand should focus primarily on our own region of the South Pacific. Politicians of all parties agree in theory but most enjoy remaining part of the club in London, Washington, Canberra and major European capitals. Beijing was added by Bolger, and kept there by Shipley, Clark and Sir John Key. It created the notorious problem that we became dependent on China for money but on Australia and the US for security.
The Key Government tried to reduce New Zealand's economic dependence on China by unsuccessfully seeking free trade agreements with the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union, the Gulf Co-operation Council and India. Better progress was made with the UK, EU, Asean and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, although that still excludes the US.
In contrast, the Ardern Government's first major foreign policy move was launching the so-called Pacific Reset. The objective was to build "more mature political partnerships with Pacific Island countries, including by reinvesting in leadership diplomacy".
The Government would ensure all domestic policy making "considers the implications for the Pacific Islands region" and "enhances the effectiveness of Pacific regional organisations to better respond to shared challenges". The strategy would be underpinned by "understanding, friendship, mutual benefit, collective ambition and sustainability".
The reset was launched by Ardern and then Foreign Minister Winston Peters in Wellington and Sydney in early 2018. Peters followed it up by warning in Washington that "New Zealand is acutely mindful of, and archly concerned by, the asymmetries at play in the region at a time when larger players are renewing their interest in the Pacific, with an attendant element of strategic competition. The speed and intensity of those interests at play are of great concern to us". He was referring to China.
Peters said the US should join New Zealand, Australia, Pacific Island countries, the EU, UK and France "to uphold values that we share and want to promote in the region; values like democracy, good governance, greater women's participation, and above all the rules-based systems on which the region relies". China took offence.
More recently, the Ardern Government's latest defence assessment, in December, said there were "two principal challenges to New Zealand's defence interests: strategic competition and the impacts of climate change".
It said that New Zealand, as a small nation, "must concentrate its defence efforts and focus on that region where its security is most affected and where it can make the biggest impact: the Pacific".
This would not "preclude" New Zealand contributing further afield but the defence establishment highlighted as most important "the wider Indo-Pacific where New Zealand has significant security interests". By no definition is Ukraine part of the Indo-Pacific.
The main security threat facing New Zealand was "the establishment of a military base or dual-use facility in the Pacific by a state that does not share New Zealand's values and security interests". This too is code for China.
The defence assessment warned that "such a development would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region".
It then worried about "military-backed resource exploitation" in the South Pacific, including of protein, gas and oil. This all created risks of military confrontation in the region, "by both accident and design", and incoherent responses to natural disasters.
Supporters of New Zealand's traditional military alliances might disagree with the assessment, and support Ardern's emphasis on the Five Eyes and Nato. As evidence, National's foreign affairs spokesman, Gerry Brownlee, strongly welcomed Ardern's moves.
But there is clearly an incoherence in what the Government says its foreign affairs and defence strategies are, and how it responds to actual events.
Following recent suggestions that China is set to establish a military base in the Solomon Islands, the White House dispatched its top South Pacific guru Kurt Campbell to Honiara, and Australia its Minister for Pacific Affairs. New Zealand is yet to react.
For better or worse, not much has changed in New Zealand's stance since 1939, except that total war among great powers has been unviable since Hiroshima. No country has the "independent" foreign policy our politicians assert, whatever that means in an interdependent world.
But this week's deployment, against the Government's stated objectives, indicates that we don't have strategic autonomy either. We've chosen our side — or it has chosen us — and it is Washington, London and Canberra, not Moscow and Beijing. Maybe we should just accept it.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.