• Paul G. Buchanan is director of 36th Parallel Assessments, a geopolitical and strategic analysis consultancy.

In most democracies domestic policy dominates election year-politics in times of peace.

Unsurprisingly, foreign policy was rarely mentioned in last year's election campaign, yet it is an important area of governance that reflects a Government's philosophy.

Since the Labour-led coalition installed in 2017 represents a departure from nine years of centre-right rule, it is worth considering whether it has a distinct foreign policy agenda.


New Zealand foreign policy has been consistent over the past 20 years regardless of which party coalition held power.

Grounded in the 1970s removal of preferential trade ties with Britain and the break-up of the Anzus defence alliance on the heels of its non-nuclear declaration in 1985, New Zealand has since then championed an "independent" foreign policy that granted it latitude when approaching diplomatic relations and international commitments.

This included support for multilateral approaches to international conflict resolution, concern with ethics, rules and norms governing international behaviour, advocacy of small-state interests and developing a reputation as an "honest broker" in international affairs.

Trade, diplomacy and security were uncoupled as the Cold War ended, which allowed New Zealand to navigate diplomatic seas without the constraints imposed by binding alliance ties to larger partners.

Trade came to dominate New Zealand foreign policy in the mid-90s, to the point that it overshadows other diplomatic concerns such as nuclear non-proliferation, environmental protection and human rights promotion.

The trade-centric approach deepened under both the fifth Labour Government as well as the National-led coalitions headed by John Key.

After 9/11 it was paralleled by a reinforcement of security ties with traditional allies in spite of the fact the move towards expanding trade relationships in Asia and the Middle East ran against New Zealand's advocacy of a principled foreign policy that defended human rights as well as the thrust of the geopolitics perspectives of security partners like the United States.

A Labour-led coalition has now returned to power. What can we expect from it when it comes to foreign policy? Continuity when it comes to the "two-track" approach? A deepening of one track and softening of the other? An attempt to bring back a third track that re-emphasises multilateralism, human rights, environmental protection and non-proliferation among other norms-based policy areas?


From what is seen in its foreign policy manifesto, Labour offers a nod both ways — overall continuity and commitment to an "independent" foreign policy in which ethical concerns are layered into trade policy and in which international security engagement is framed by United Nations mandates and multilateral resolutions.

Commitment is made to renewed diplomatic engagement, particularly in international forums and within the South Pacific region, but the overall thrust of its foreign policy objectives remain aspirational rather than dialed in on achievable specifics.

That raises questions.

Does the Labour-led Government use (neo) realist, idealist or some hybrid framework to frame its foreign policy perspective? Does it use international systems to address issue linkage in foreign policy and to join the dots amongst broader economic, social, military and political trends in world affairs as well the nature of the global community itself?

Given the predominance of trade in Kiwi foreign policy, does it balance notions of comparative and competitive advantage when envisioning New Zealand's preferred negotiating stance? If not these, what conceptual and theoretical apparatuses does it employ?

The answers to these questions can provide insight into how the new Government will address specific issues such as the future of the NZ Defence Force mission in Iraq, the TPP negotiations, the South China Sea conflict, post-Brexit trade relations with Europe and other pressing international concerns.

For the moment the basic question remains: Will it simply carry over the previous Government's foreign policy or engage in substantive reform of select aspects of it? On a practical level, how do its views reconcile with those of the foreign affairs bureaucracy?

This is important because Donald Trump's election as US President has changed the global environment in which New Zealand foreign policy is practised.

He has rejected support for the UN and multilateralism with his "America First" philosophy, and has increased global tensions with his belligerent posturing vis a vis adversaries and bullying of allies.

Since New Zealand maintains good relations with some US adversaries as well as allies, yet is intimately tied to the US in uniquely significant ways, its ability to maintain the dichotomous approach to an independent foreign policy may now be in jeopardy.

This is particularly true for balancing the US-China relationship, where the "two-track" New Zealand foreign policy is more akin to straddling a barbed wire fence rather than a matter of prudently placing diplomatic eggs in different baskets.

Given the uncertain nature of the current world moment, the Government needs to clarify its foreign policy outlook for domestic and foreign interlocutors alike.