Divided Loyalties: When it comes to settling on a Twenty-First Century protector, New Zealand faces a dilemma. The United States provides military protection, but refuses to offer economic security. China provides economic security, but cannot (for the moment) offer military protection. Neither power is likely to go on contributing the ‘missing half’ of a complete protection package indefinitely.
NEW ZEALAND is a tiny nation living in a big country. It’s one of those mind-boggling facts that in an island roughly the same size as New Zealand’s two largest islands combined, the United Kingdom somehow manages to squeeze-in 66 million human-beings. Greater London, alone, packs twice New Zealand’s entire population into an area smaller than Stewart Island. In the greater scheme of things, Planet Earth’s roughly five million New Zealanders don’t count for much: not in the eyes of the other 7.6 billion human-beings who share it with them.
Given its tiny population, how should New Zealand position itself vis-à-vis the rest of the world? How does it deal with the all-too-obvious discrepancy between its landmass and its population?
This is not a trick question. As Maori discovered in the Nineteenth Century: a large pair of islands, located comfortably in the southern hemisphere’s temperate zone, and peopled by (at most) 150,000 human-beings; is simply too-tempting a prize for the world’s predator nations to ignore. Had the tribes not signed-up with the British, chances are they’d have signed-on with the French.
From a strategic perspective, the Maori decision to place themselves under the protection of what was then the world’s most powerful state makes perfect sense. That their faith in the British Government’s promise to respect the manifold local sovereignties of hapu and iwi was misplaced is hardly their fault! Even after the military defeat and economic marginalisation of New Zealand’s indigenous population, however, the Waitangi signatories’ original strategic insight remains unimpeachable. Two relatively large, but thinly-populated islands, located at the bottom of the world, will always be in need of at least one unanswerably powerful friend.
Unfortunately, that sort of protection comes at a price. (As any victim of the New York Mafia will attest!) And, Dear God! New Zealand has paid dearly! For keeping the sea-lanes open to the endless circuit of refrigerated vessels transporting this country’s lamb, wool, butter and cheese to the port cities of the British Isles, the “Mother Country” siphoned-off a small lake of New Zealand blood.
Less visceral, but arguably even more debilitating, was the oppressive cultural straight-jacket into which the United Kingdom fastened its most loyal dominion. All the worst features of British imperialism: its deeply ingrained class prejudices; the complacent avarice of its monied elites; and, most damaging of all, the Empire’s indefatigable racism; left deep scars on New Zealand’s collective psyche. More than a century after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and notwithstanding the tragic losses of two world wars, New Zealanders – Maori as well as Pakeha – could still be reduced to obsequious delirium by the mere physical presence of the reigning British monarch.
There was, however, no disputing the fact that Britain’s imperial sun was setting. If New Zealand was to remain safe, it would require a more credible protector than the over-extended empire whose power-projection pretentions were sent to the bottom of the South China Sea in December 1941.
The United States’ rise to super-power status during World War II, when combined with the UK’s demise as a global player, unleashed a cultural revolution in far-off New Zealand. The official egalitarianism of the American republic, especially when combined with the raw energy of its artistic output – its music and cinema particularly – armed the USA with a historically unprecedented amount of “soft-power”. Though Kiwis have been slow to admit it, the emancipation of their cultural imagination owes an enormous debt of gratitude to their American protector.
New Zealand’s strategic dilemma in the Twenty-First Century arises out of two historically related developments. The first was Deng Xiaoping’s decision to pursue “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” – basically, his Communist Party’s re-invention of traditional Chinese mercantilism. The second, the “Reagan Revolution’s” triumph over Rooseveltian progressivism in the 1980s. This brought about a qualitative change in the character of American soft power. It was a change which many New Zealanders found unpalatable – even frightening.
As the consequences of these two historical shifts worked their way through New Zealand’s economy and society, the maintenance of a coherent foreign policy became increasingly difficult. Economically, New Zealand is oriented firmly towards its crucial Chinese markets. Culturally, diplomatically and militarily, however, the ties that bind remain American. The challenge confronting successive New Zealand governments has been how to reconcile Washington’s insistence that New Zealand remain a US protectorate, while simultaneously refusing to guarantee its economic security.
When it comes to settling on a Twenty-First Century protector, therefore, New Zealand faces a dilemma. The United States provides military protection, but refuses to offer economic security. China provides economic security, but cannot (for the moment) offer military protection. Neither power is likely to go on contributing the ‘missing half’ of a complete protection package indefinitely.
There are times when five million seems like a very small number indeed.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 November 2017.