Climate Changers: Ordinary New Zealanders make a very direct and public contribution to the evolution of their country's foreign policy vis-à-vis Vietnam in 1967. The effort to move New Zealand out from under America's shadow has been a constant theme of the post-war foreign policy debate. Since its first gathering in 1966, the University of Otago's Foreign Policy School has played a significant role in modifying the "official climate of opinion" in relation to the USA.
GERALD HENSLEY sums up the congealed orthodoxy of New Zealand’s foreign policy establishment in his 2006 memoir – Final Approaches. In 1989, the veteran New Zealand diplomat and civil servant was awarded a fellowship to Harvard by the Centre for International Affairs. Describing with obvious relish the cosy ivy-league environment of languorous breakfasts and roaring log fires, he rounded-off his observations of the winter the Wall came down by musing upon the performance of a group of classical musicians.
“A few nights later I looked down at the Beaux Arts Trio taking their bows after a concert and was struck by the tradition they represented – three dumpy figures with the light gleaming on their white hair and shirt-fronts who had helped carry the values of civilisation through the long totalitarian shadow cast by the twentieth century.”
Let us put to one side the obvious retorts that the Nazis are known to have organised classical recitals in the death camps; and that the Soviets’ reverence for the classical tradition was second to none; and examine instead Mr Hensley’s comfortable assumptions about the character of the Cold War’s ultimate victors.
The battle, according to Hensley, has always been a struggle between the “values of civilisation” and the “totalitarian shadow”. In framing his own, and, by extension, New Zealand’s, diplomatic choices in these stark Manichean terms, Hensley echoes the conceptual conservatism that has dictated the formulation and conduct of New Zealand foreign policy for the last 70 years.
Where, one wonders, were the “values of civilisation” when the United States Air Force was spraying Agent Orange on Vietnam’s forests? (Not to mention its own – and our – troops!) And where, exactly, did the “totalitarian shadow” fall when America’s murderous Honduran proxies (all of them thoroughly trained at the infamous US Army School of the Americas in Georgia) were waging genocidal war against their own indigenous Mayan population? And what about all those Washington neo-cons and their plans for bringing the “values of civilisation” to Afghanistan and Iraq? How’s that working out?
It’s not simply that New Zealand’s foreign policy establishment routinely dismiss such questions as evidence of either naivety or (much worse!) anti-Americanism, but that in soaking-up the cosy collegial atmosphere depicted in Hensley’s memoirs, New Zealand diplomats very rapidly lose all interest in undertaking any such ethical interrogation of their very, very, very good friends.
Writing 40 years prior to the appearance of Hensley’s Final Approaches, William B. Sutch, in his The Quest For Security in New Zealand 1840-1966, recalled the birth of the Cold War in the late 1940s, when the Labour Party, under Peter Fraser, inaugurated “a period, which has now lasted two decades, when not only was dissent from the customary social and economic way of doing things regarded with suspicion, and sceptical thinking discouraged, but an official climate of opinion developed, conditioned to receive US foreign policy sympathetically just as in past years the support for British foreign policy had been almost automatic.”
Academic institutions have played a crucial role in the formulation and maintenance of that “official climate of opinion”. All across the English-speaking world, ‘Centres’ for this and ‘Institutes’ for that make sure that, in addition to churning-out copious quantities of self-serving “research”, they regularly perform the much more important function of bringing together the men and women upon whose shoulders the responsibility for ensuring that the official climate does not change ultimately rests. At such gatherings the official orthodoxy is reinforced, international relationships forged, and new talent spotted and recruited.
The University of Otago Foreign Policy School, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in Dunedin over the weekend, was New Zealand’s first attempt at creating an academic adjunct to the official formulators of this country’s foreign policy. Inspired by Arnold Entwisle, and run by him for the first ten years of its existence, the two-day “school” initially did little more than provide an introduction to the rudiments of foreign policy and alert Otago’s brightest graduates to the possibility of a career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As the year’s passed, however, the School’s annual colloquium began to build up a distinct community of participants and attendees. Not only the Ministry but many of the larger embassies regularly sent observers. Prestigious speakers, both local and international, added to the School’s reputation.
Much more significant, however, was the way the School adapted its subject-matter to reflect the public’s increasing engagement in foreign policy issues – especially the Vietnam War, sporting contacts with Apartheid-era South Africa, and nuclear disarmament. In doing so the School distinguished itself clearly from its local and overseas counterparts. By no means always, but often enough to perturb the official climate of opinion, the University of Otago Foreign Policy School has been prepared to interrogate, and not always sympathetically, the “values of civilisation” – and American foreign policy.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 June 2015.