When Helen Clark flies to New York to take up her prestigious United Nations posting, will New Zealand's so-called independent foreign policy take flight with her?

When it comes to Labour icons such as the Cullen superannuation fund, KiwiSaver and the Television New Zealand charter, the new National Administration has wasted little time variously tinkering, tampering and trashing the legacy of its predecessor.

Why would foreign policy - a large part of Clark's legacy - be treated any more sympathetically?

Within weeks of becoming Foreign Minister, Murray McCully had incurred the wrath and scorn of Labour, the Greens and others on the centre-left, notably for his perceived failure to condemn Israel's military incursion into Gaza late last year, along with his review of New Zealand's overseas aid programme and the likely restructuring of NZAid, the quasi-autonomous agency which delivers it.

Has McCully gone back on his word and acted contrary to his assurances in Opposition that National would run a bipartisan foreign policy?

Not in a broad sense.

In terms of the fundamentals - maintaining close relations with Australia, watching the South Pacific, rebuilding ties with Washington and negotiating free-trade agreements - there is a pretty firm consensus between the two major parties.

That bipartisanship has been enhanced by National accepting a significant new fundamental: that Labour's anti-nuclear law is here to stay and that there can be no return to New Zealand's military alliances of old.

That was never likely to be possible anyway. The world has moved on.

Among the shifts in emphases and nuances is a more rigorous, less accepting attitude towards the flaws of the United Nations.

The Government happily put its weight behind Clark's bid for the job of administrator of the UN Development Programme, with much of the behind-the-scenes graft and lobbying being undertaken by New Zealand's permanent representative at the UN, diplomat Rosemary Banks.

However, Banks, whose term is up shortly, is being replaced by Jim McLay, who as a former politician is expected by the Government to be more assertive in criticising the world body's failure to reform itself.

McCully has sought to remedy other gaps and failings he sees in Labour's approach to foreign policy.

Worried by China's growing influence in the South Pacific, for example, he intends to develop a far warmer relationship with France as the remaining colonial power in the region.

He has tried but so far failed to break the deadlock with Fiji, sending signals to Suva only for them to be thrown back in his face.

All of this reflects National's "NZ Incorporated" approach to foreign policy which is apparent in the overhaul of NZAid - that New Zealand has to get the most of limited resources, but is not doing so.

Apart from the South Pacific, where New Zealand can exercise some clout but is careful about how it goes about doing so, New Zealand's foreign policy has always been driven by the limits of small-state diplomacy.

That has prompted National to strengthen ties with old allies by aligning itself more with stands taken by Australia, Canada and Britain, rather than European and Scandinavian countries.

Labour talked big about running an independent foreign policy. That policy's most notable achievement was Clark keeping New Zealand out of the Iraq war.

That was a big call. But the tight limits on independence were amply illustrated by subsequent efforts to keep relations with Washington on track, with New Zealand paying its dues by sending a contingent of elite SAS soldiers to fight alongside American troops in Afghanistan.

That the deployment was shrouded in secrecy, received little media attention and was overshadowed by New Zealand's much bigger military contribution to reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan's Bamyan province should not obscure the significance and symbolism of the SAS's mission, especially in pleasing the Americans.

Now National is coming under pressure from the Obama Administration to send the SAS back to Afghanistan. Surprisingly to those who think a National Government would be at Washington's beck and call, it is displaying a marked reluctance to do so.

Labour knew it was politically safe to send combat-ready soldiers to Afghanistan because it knew National would not attack the decision. Any criticism would only come from its left and could therefore be easily brushed aside.

National believes Labour was incredibly lucky no soldiers returned to New Zealand in body bags. Wary at how quickly public sentiment can change, it doubts that luck will last, given the increase in fighting in that country.

National wants to keep its options open for as long as possible and not get into a position that implies it will say "yes" to any request from Washington.

McCully will therefore likely play for time when he meets Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington the week after next.

Neither will he push too hard for faster progress on strengthening defence ties, while free-trade negotiations are also on the backburner until President Obama and the new Congress are ready for them.

While there may be little to separate Labour and National when it comes to Wellington-Washington relations, National believes bipartisanship does not mean New Zealand's stance on every foreign policy matter should be frozen on Labour's settings.

That was apparent on Gaza. National believes New Zealand's longstanding and strictly even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a policy in place since the 1967 Six Day War - had got seriously out of kilter.

That was best exemplified by the photograph of a beaming Phil Goff, then New Zealand's Foreign Minister, striding down a West Bank street side-by-side with Yasser Arafat.

It does not take much imagination to work out what kind of signal that sent to the Israelis.

McCully's deliberate tardiness in criticising the Israelis over the loss of life and destruction in Gaza was designed to redress the balance.

It was seen by opponents as National cosying up to Tel Aviv following the diplomatic row over Israeli spies trying to obtain New Zealand passports under false identities and that this repairing of relations was being driven by the Prime Minister's office because of John Key's Jewish ties.

Regardless of the dubious veracity of the latter supposition, National was taking a similar line to more traditional allies - something which did not go unappreciated in Canberra, Ottawa and London.

McCully would argue that Labour's barely disguised support for the Palestinian cause made it impossible for New Zealand to have any influence on Israel, limited as that would be anyway.

In short, the McCully way is to adopt a more direct and more rigorous style of diplomacy which he believes are in the best interests of New Zealand, rather than scratching some domestic ideological itch.

If that makes New Zealand's foreign policy less independent, so be it. It was not as independent as it was cracked up to be anyway.