Lessons Learned? Professor Jane Kelsey addresses the 50th Otago Foreign Policy School on New Zealand and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The most important lesson to take home from the school was that if the people stop making their own foreign policy, then somebody else will make it for them.
IF IT WAS A SCHOOL, what did we learn? Flying back to Auckland, after three frigid days in Dunedin, that’s what I wanted to know. Were any of us any wiser about the past, present and future of New Zealand foreign policy? Well, yes and no. There’d been presentations that contained material which many attendees were surprised to learn. Like New Zealand’s proud record of support for the Palestinian cause at the United Nations. I had no idea we’d been willing to defy the USA and Israel quite so often. For the most part, however, the University of Otago’s Foreign Policy School wasn’t so much about learning new things as it was about reaffirming old things.
Fifty years ago the idea that New Zealanders deserved a chance to be schooled in the theory and practice of foreign policy was both new and vaguely subversive. The conduct of diplomacy and the formulation of foreign policy has for centuries been more or less the exclusive preserve of the executive branch of government. That the Department of University Extension was proposing to subject this elite process to academic exposition and debate would have struck many as not merely unorthodox but even a little risky.
University Extension had, itself, grown out of the movement for the democratisation of higher education, represented in the 1930s by the Workers’ Educational Association. Now, in 1966, barely twelve months after a very reluctant Keith Holyoake had agreed to join the USA and Australia in South Vietnam, the Department’s Arnold Entwisle was proposing to induct ordinary citizens into the mysteries and complexities of foreign policy. No wonder the Department of External Affairs felt it advisable to “enrol” a staff member or two in Mr Entwisle’s “school”.
And so the battle lines were drawn. On the one hand, the democratisers: determined to encourage public questioning of, and participation in, the formation of New Zealand foreign policy. On the other, the professionals: elite defenders of the Crown’s prerogatives and uncompromising protectors of her secrets. Over the 50 years of the Foreign Policy School’s existence, these two fundamental and contradictory impulses have vied with one another for supremacy. There have been times when it seemed that the annual two-day colloquia were convened for no better purpose than to explain the ways of MFAT’s gods to ordinary men. Through half-a-century, however, the impulse towards democratisation and public participation has maintained a critical presence.
So much so, that the professionals are now quite happy to cite the achievements of the popular movements inspired by this country’s foreign policy choices as evidence of New Zealand’s “independent” national temperament. That the campaigns against New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam War; her relationship with Apartheid South Africa; and her reliance on nuclear “deterrence” and the ANZUS alliance for her national security, were all regarded with deep suspicion (if not outright hostility) by the “professionals” of those Cold War years has, conveniently, been forgotten.
But, as Professor Kevin Clements, Chair of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago (and a long time attendee of the Foreign Policy School) told us on Sunday morning: “there is no national identity outside the people”. The New Zealand character, he said, had been “born out of movements” and “shaped by struggle”.
If we’re regarded as egalitarian, it’s only because the struggles of our labour movement made us so. And if we’re “nuclear free”, it’s only because the grass-roots Nuclear-Free New Zealand movement’s astonishing reach and intensity made it impossible for the fourth Labour government to be anything else.
Over its 50 years, the Foreign Policy School has played its part in educating and inspiring many of the key participants in the dramatic foreign policy shifts of New Zealand’s post-war history. As it contemplates its next 50 years, however, misgivings must multiply. The foreign policy upheavals of the post-war era were, pre-eminently, the achievement of the Baby-Boom Generation. But as the Boomers’ hair whitens, their places in the front ranks of social change are not being filled by a new generation of idealistic activists.
Indeed, after 50 years of struggle, it’s the professionals who now seem to have the edge over the democratisers. Maybe that’s the lesson to take home: that if the people stop making their own foreign policy, then somebody else will make it for them.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 July 2015.