Former National Prime Minister Jim Bolger questioned Australia’s plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines at a debate on New Zealand’s independent foreign policy, held to honour former diplomat Terence O’Brien who died last year.
Bolger also took issue with a suggestion from the floor that an independent foreign policy had become a policy of appeasement by New Zealand and a failure to call out tyrants.
And foreign affairs chief executive Chris Seed said that having an independent foreign policy was not the same as being even-handed, as evidenced by New Zealand’s strong support of Ukraine and against the Russian invasion.
The event last night was titled “Forging an independent foreign policy,” and was hosted by Wellington think-tank Diplosphere. Other speakers included former diplomat Michael Powles, historian Malcolm McKinnon and O’Brien’s oldest son, John O’Brien.
New Zealand’s relationship with China and the United States underpinned much of the discussion and Chinese ambassador Wang Xiaolong was among the many foreign diplomats there.
Bolger talked about a meeting O’Brien had arranged in 1991 between Bolger and former President George H. W. Bush on the sidelines of leaders’ week at the United Nations – it being the first high-level meeting after the Anzus rift six years previously.
New Zealand did not concede anything on its anti-nuclear policy, Bolger said, and he hoped it never would.
Bolger alluded to the Aukus pact between Australia, the United States and Britain to acquire up to eight used and new nuclear-powered submarines by 2050 for an estimated $400 billion.
“And just to come right up to date, I don’t think we need nuclear-powered submarines either. If you can find any Australian official who can explain why they need nuclear-powered submarines, come and tell me. I’d like to know.”
The cost of them was “beyond comprehension.”
He spoke with despair about the near-daily threats of nuclear war which had the potential to destroy the planet.
“How mad are we getting?”
He said O’Brien had been a global thinker and New Zealand needed to be in the front of global thinking because it was too small to do anything else.
“All we can do is lead by intellectual argument and persuasion and we have no limit on doing it and we have the ability to do it.”
Several speakers referenced the decision by former Prime Minister Helen Clark to refuse to join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as evidence of an independent foreign policy and not always going along with traditional friends.
A debate followed about the meaning of having an independent foreign policy, with Bolger rejecting a suggestion by one audience member that it was being translated to appeasement, in not speaking out strongly enough against tyrants.
Powles said O’Brien had not argued that independence meant sitting on fences and not taking positions.
“I think he argued rather for clear positions and being prepared to speak up. I think being even-handed means being prepared to speak up.”
Seed said that Ukraine was the perfect example.
“The New Zealand Government, a properly commissioned Government, with the full support of the Parliament has been outraged by what has happened in Ukraine,” he said.
“That is why we have sent material support, we have provided humanitarian support, we have allowed preferential arrangements for Ukrainian visa-holders to come to New Zealand, that’s why we are supporting the ICC and the ICJ and the ICJ and their prosecution of Russian war criminals; that’s why we have got over 100 NZDF colleagues training Ukrainian forces in the United Kingdom.”
Something material had happened that was undermining the international system, Seed said.
“Independence is not sitting on the fence and saying this is the same as happened in Iraq.”
The New Zealand Government had taken a very firm position in exercising judgment in the name of the citizens of the country.
Terence O’Brien was a diplomat from 1959 to 2001. His posts included being ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva from 1980 – 1983, and to New York from 1990 to 1993. He was the first director of the Centre for Strategic Studies based at Victoria University of Wellington.
US National Security Council Indo-Pacific co-ordinator Kurt Campbell was in New Zealand at the weekend and reiterated the suggestion that New Zealand could have a future role in Aukus in terms of working with cutting-edge technologies such as hypersonics.