Drones, Climate Change, and the South China Sea: A Time for New Zealand Leadership?

New Zealand has an impressive history of individuals taking a leading role in world affairs. Mike Moore led the World Trade Organization, Don McKinnon the Commonwealth of Nations, and Helen Clark the United Nations Development Programme. Add to this the substantial achievements of countless other less well-known New Zealanders in far-flung places working to make the world a better place. If Helen Clark became the Secretary-General of the United Nations, it would be the crowning achievement of this history of individual leadership by New Zealanders. However, whilst the leadership and impact of individual New Zealanders on the global stage is impressive, it is less clear that the New Zealand Government’s foreign policy these days is similarly engaged or influential. 

New Zealand is an outward-looking country. Over a million of us live overseas and many more frequently travel and work abroad. We have a proud tradition of independent foreign policy positions – most famously our Nuclear Free status – and are well respected globally as an open and progressive society. We are also a relatively wealthy and successful country compared with much of the world. From a foreign policy perspective this raises two questions. Are we effectively addressing our own strategic interests in the world? And are we, given our position, taking leadership on issues affecting our friends, allies, and those less fortunate?

Our campaign for a seat on the Security Council and our important role in WTO negotiations are both encouraging examples of serious engagement with global affairs. In 1994, when we were last on the Security Council, we were one of the few countries to push hard to strengthen the UN mission in Rwanda. It is high time we returned.

Yet on other major international issues our participation is weak or our position suspect. In international climate negotiations New Zealand has largely been happy to hide behind the limited appetite for action from Australia and the United States. An alternative would have been New Zealand as a strong voice for action in solidarity with our Pacific Island neighbors and in recognition of both our own long tradition of environmental awareness and our strategic interest in a stable climate. This strategic interest includes the sensitivity of our coastal cities and the agricultural sector to climate change, and the potential challenges of climate induced migration from the Pacific.

Our voice and participation are similarly absent in addressing the rising tensions in Asia. The impact on our commercial ties needs to be carefully managed but as Robert Ayson points out in a recent blog, “our continuing silence suggests that the principles that allow for regional peace and commerce are unimportant to us.” If positioned correctly, New Zealand may even be well placed to play a role in mediating the dispute between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea given our perceived independence (in contrast to the United States) and relatively close relations with all parties. Norway, a country of similar size and stature, has played this kind of role in international disputes previously.

Our development aid programme, whilst doing invaluable work already, also raises questions. Our current level of aid is only 0.27% of GNI, despite our commitment to 0.7% of GNI which countries such as Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands have already met. Oxfam reports that 60 percent of New Zealanders support reaching the 0.7% target and yet, unlike many countries including the United Kingdom, we have no credible timeframe by which we intend to reach it. Furthermore, the National Government has decided to reduce NZAID’s autonomy from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs so as to increase its use as a tool of diplomacy. This risks reducing the effectiveness of each dollar spent by imposing criteria other than development impact on funding decisions. It is also the exact opposite of the approach taken by the United Kingdom. In 1997, in search of greater impact, they made the Department for International Development independent and reduced the extent to which aid was tied to purchasing British products abroad.

Finally, the Government’s indifference about drone strikes – including those on a New Zealand citizen who was killed in Yemen in November 2013 – is concerning. As Toby Manhire points out, a twenty year old New Zealander was effectively given a death sentence without a trial. John Key admits that it is ‘possible’ that information gathered by the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) could have prompted some American drone strikes. The very real threat from organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS poses extremely difficult questions to which there are no easy answers. However, there is an urgent need for a proper debate about the legality, moral legitimacy, and future implications of GCSB involvement in the targeting of drone strikes, particularly as a New Zealand citizen has now been killed – without due process – by a drone. More broadly, drone strikes often raise complex issues of legality and sovereignty. With many more countries attaining drone capability there is a strong case for an international agreement on some basic rules of their use – just as exists in other aspects of warfare. As a country beginning to confront our own role in drone strikes, New Zealand could step up and lead the international discussion on the need for, and creation of, an international legal framework for drone warfare.

In contrast to many of the individual New Zealanders participating in global affairs, our foreign policy increasingly seems to be happy to follow others rather than lead. I am proud of New Zealand and proud of our role in global affairs through history. Today, though, it is hard not to conclude that we could and should be more engaged and influential – with a foreign policy based on New Zealand’s own national character. We are a country that believes in fostering peace, security, human rights, development and a good global environment and we should follow those beliefs with integrity and diligence. This could take the form of positioning ourselves as a mediator in Asia, a more ambitious and substantive position in the Paris climate negotiations, a clear commitment to effective international aid, or a voice highlighting the need for an international legal framework on drone warfare. Underlying all of these should be recognition that we must not simply measure our progress in foreign policy by other people’s standards but try to better ourselves using the yardstick of our own principles and highest aspirations.

– Kinley Salmon

Kinley is a New Zealander who grew up in Nelson before taking an opportunity to study politics at Cambridge University. After graduating, he worked predominantly on international development.  Today he is completing a Masters at the Harvard Kennedy School and is a close follower of events back home.

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One Response to Drones, Climate Change, and the South China Sea: A Time for New Zealand Leadership?

  1. evadiva2 says:

    i appreciated reading this, and I think Kinley nails it in a very tidy, moderate yet authoritative way. It is hard to point the finger at any one aspect of our foreign policy that is lacking in integrity, but as Kinley points out, it is not so much what we are dong that is remiss but the number of things that we are not doing. John Key does give an aura of genial arselicking as opposed to being a man of staunch integrity in the way exemplified by people like Helen Clark, David Lange, Norman Kirk and even Kate Shepherd. I look forward to the day when your voice. Kinley,. is heard in the corridors and chambers where important decisions, based on integrity and humanity, are made.

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