What Are You trying To Say? The contrast between Helen Clark’s stewardship of New Zealand foreign policy and Jacinda Ardern’s is stark. Ardern’s generation, raised in the shadow of Rogernomics, has never evinced the same strong interest in international issues that characterised the Baby Boomers. The USA had won the Cold War, leaving neoliberal capitalism in command of the planet. Taking issue with this new status quo could be seriously career-limiting. With Ardern, it’s not quite a matter of “where Uncle Sam goes, we go” – but it’s close.
NOWHERE is the difference between Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern more apparent than in the field of foreign policy.
Clark’s induction to left-wing politics came, as it did for so many of her generation, from New Zealand’s interactions with the rest of the world.
Be it this country’s relationship with the United States, France or South Africa, there was never any shortage of deficiencies to be challenged and (hopefully) overcome. The Vietnam War, Atmospheric Nuclear Testing, Apartheid: these were the issues that mobilised thousands of young New Zealanders – and Labour was on the right side of them all.
For those, like Clark, who were driven to do more than protest, serious engagement with foreign policy issues required a high degree of intellectual and political discipline. If one’s intention was to do more than shout slogans and wave placards, then the facts had to be mastered and the arguments, both for and against, understood. Without the ability to make a case, and defend it, the chances of being heard by those with the power to effect change were negligible.
What was sauce for the goose of foreign policy was, of course, also sauce for the gander of domestic policy. Mastering the art of the possible in relation to the former pretty much guaranteed equal mastery with respect to the latter. More importantly, Clark soon realised than in a small trading nation tucked away at the bottom of the planet, building and maintaining strong and mutually advantageous relationships with the rest of the world was absolutely crucial to the preservation of national prosperity.
It was an insight which propelled Clark towards the “realist” school of international relations pioneered by Hans Morgenthau. At the heart of Morgenthau’s realism was his belief that the relationships between countries should be guided by an assessment of the power each is able to bring to the task of advancing and defending their national interests. Ethical considerations are not irrelevant to this sort of calculation, but neither are they pivotal. In Morgenthau’s opinion: “A good foreign policy minimizes risks and maximizes benefits.”
Clark’s realism proved highly effective in advancing New Zealand’s national interest. She earned the respect of four-fifths of humanity by declining to join in the USA’s illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. More impressively, she persuaded the Chinese to put their trust in New Zealand, and thus became the first western leader to negotiate a free trade agreement with the People’s Republic.
The contrast between Clark’s stewardship of New Zealand foreign policy and Ardern’s is stark. Ardern’s generation, raised in the shadow of Rogernomics, has never evinced the same strong interest in international issues that characterised the Baby Boomers. The USA had won the Cold War, leaving neoliberal capitalism in command of the planet. Taking issue with this new status quo could be seriously career-limiting. With Ardern, it’s not quite a matter of “where Uncle Sam goes, we go” – but it’s close.
This is a long way from Morgenthau’s realism. Absent from New Zealand’s current foreign policy is the constant and careful calculation of precisely how much diplomatic power is available to us at any given moment for the advancement of our national interest.
The Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, apparently on his own recognisance, has signed New Zealand up holus-bolus to the USA’s new “Indo-Pacific” strategy. In the process he has gratuitously breached the trust upon which New Zealand’s immensely valuable economic relationship with China rests. He did not see fit to consult his Prime Minister about this radical realignment – and, by all accounts, she saw no reason to object.
Quite what Clark makes of the unholy mess Peters has made of her carefully balanced foreign policy can only be imagined. When the pressure is applied: from Canberra, London, Washington or Beijing; the Foreign Minister is suddenly nowhere to be found. Leaving his hapless Prime Minister to follow the line of least diplomatic resistance. Towards Washington one day. Towards Beijing the next.
From the point of view of the two largest powers on New Zealand’s dance card, squeezing the Kiwis makes perfect sense. If a nation reveals itself to be vulnerable to pressure, then pressure will be applied.
Ardern has led New Zealand into the very predicament Clark worked so hard to keep us out of: caught between an American rock and a Chinese hard place.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 March 2019.