Monday 26 June 2023

Diplomatic Daydreams and Imperial Nightmares.

The Answer Was “No!”  If the government and people of New Zealand formed the opinion that there was no possibility that nuclear weapons – let alone the use of them – could ever be in the interest of the country, then, surely, abandoning that judgement to satisfy the wishes of New Zealand’s “friends” would constitute a signal failure to uphold the national interest? 

GERALD HENSLEY only had one job. When David Lange became Prime Minister in 1984, the career civil servant and diplomat was tasked with making sure his new boss didn’t repeat the “mistakes” of Labour’s last charismatic leader, Norman Kirk.

Hensley failed.

New Zealand declared itself Nuclear-Free, denied port access to the USS Buchanan, and found itself excluded from the ANZUS Pact. It was a foreign and defence policy disaster, and it happened on Hensley’s watch.

Which is why, for nearly 40 years, Hensley has been buttonholing every diplomat, politician and journalist prepared to listen to explain why none of it was his fault. He has also made it his mission to persuade New Zealanders that their country’s nuclear-free status, along with its “independent foreign policy” is nothing more than “daydream diplomacy”.

His latest attempt to ridicule his country’s foreign policy, (“Daydream diplomacy and the myth of NZ independence”, NZ Herald, 21/6/23) is an unappetising stew of pop psychology, Sinophobia, imperial nostalgia and national self-loathing. This is unsurprising, since Hensley’s Cold War recipe betrays his inability to any longer read the geopolitical runes.

The whole tone of Hensley’s op-ed piece is one of supercilious contempt for all those politicians, past as well as present, who fell prey to the pacifistic rhetoric of the Nuclear-Free New Zealand movement of the 1980s.

In terms of international relations theory, Hensley would probably count himself among the “realists” – the sort of academics who delight in telling their students that “countries do not have friends, only interests”. By this reckoning, New Zealand’s nuclear-free legislation represents a failure on the part of successive governments to accurately discern where the country’s true interests lie.

But, hold on, is Hensley saying that our anti-nuclear legislation is against New Zealand’s long-term interests because it upset – and continues to upset – our friends? Friends that, from a realist’s perspective, must always take second place to the national self-interest?

If the government and people of New Zealand formed the opinion that there was no possibility that nuclear weapons – let alone the use of them – could ever be in the interest of the country, then, surely, abandoning that judgement to satisfy the wishes of New Zealand’s “friends” would constitute a signal failure to uphold the national interest? In other words, the “realist” position is the one advanced by the defenders of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance. It is Hensley, and those who think like him, who are putting sentiment before reason.

And what sentiments! One can almost see the sneer curling Hensley’s lip as he tapped out the following, almost gloating, dismissal of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy:

For 40 years, New Zealand, with no threat, no nuclear arms and therefore nothing to give up, has marched along bravely behind the banner of nuclear disarmament while not a single country joined us. To press on with a policy that failed to achieve anything in nearly 50 years might be seen as deeply eccentric.

Not really. There is nothing “eccentric” about the world’s huge sigh of relief when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union imploded. People spoke enthusiastically about a global “peace dividend” and the hands of the Doomsday Clock edged back a little. As it has so often, New Zealand led international opinion in the 1980s. Throughout the 1990s and into the new century the fear of nuclear annihilation receded and support for comprehensive nuclear disarmament increased.

It was the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and claims by the USA and the UK that dictators were on the point of acquiring “weapons of mass destruction”, that brought the Peace Train to a screeching halt. That the nations who went to war with Iraq in 2003 – ostensibly to confiscate its deadly arsenal – were led by the nuclear-armed USA was an irony not lost on the rest of the world. That Iraq’s deadly arsenal turned out to not exist only made the irony sharper.

That Hensley proclaims New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy a failure because the nation states in possession of nuclear weapons (with the noble exception of Ukraine) refused to dismantle them is risible. No serious participant in New Zealand’s huge nuclear disarmament movement ever expected the USA, the Soviet Union, the UK, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel to beat their ICBMs into ploughshares just because we asked them to.

New Zealand’s anti-nuclear pitch was typically straightforward and pragmatic. The rest of the world may not be able to beat sense into the nations with the nukes, but it sure as hell didn’t have to join them in their insanity. That was a policy banner behind which the rest of the world – except Iran – was only too happy to march.

Hensley’s sneering tone permeates the whole of his op-ed essay. If he is to be believed the only way New Zealand can demonstrate its diplomatic maturity is to reject any notion of acting independently. In his own words: “We are prisoners of our history and geography which will always limit our choice of diplomatic friends.”

Except, the way the world is heading points to New Zealand having plenty of choices about which diplomatic friendships it develops, and which it allows to wither away. History teaches us that empires rise and fall, and that far from being a factor shackling us to a particular region, New Zealand’s geographical location has more often been treated as irrelevant. Every 25 April New Zealanders recall a campaign fought on the slopes of a peninsula 17,000 kilometres from their own shores. Hensley should know better than to run the argument that geography is destiny.

And even if he is right, and that New Zealand’s destiny is inextricably bound up with its location in the South Pacific, then the nation state we have the most to gain by befriending is not the United States – an internally riven, economically fragile, and declining superpower – but the People’s Republic of China. Not only is China New Zealand’s most important trading partner, but its influence across the Pacific Ocean can only grow as the diplomacy of the USA twists and turns, advances and retreats, in accordance with the fluctuating fortunes of its warring political tribes.

It is highly likely that Gerald Hensley was one of the very few New Zealanders cleared to read the Five Eyes decrypts. That privilege, if he did indeed enjoy it, would go a long way to explaining his seemingly unshakeable faith in the unchallengeable preponderance of the English-speaking nations. He cannot conceive of a world in which New Zealand is not in a special relationship with the UK’s and the USA’s “Special Relationship”. Nor, indeed, of a world in which the old empire and the new are not the top dogs – determining what is, and what isn’t, suitable for Kipling’s “lesser breeds without the law”.

We need to recover the old boundaries of a realistic foreign policy, repair the mildewed relationship with Australia, pay much more attention to the Asean countries and stop regarding the South China Sea and Taiwan as faraway problems, says Hensley. The obsession with independence and nuclear disarmament is the sound of people in the dark, whistling to keep up their spirits.

Maybe, it’s a cruel world out there. But, honestly, it seems better to be whistling to keep up a nation’s spirits, than dog-whistling to unreconstructed white supremacists caught up in the sort of imperial daydreams that always seem to end in nightmarish violence.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 23 June 2023.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

To be honest, I don't really care that much about the white supremacists foreign policy – it's their domestic policy that scares the crap out of me.

While I don't think we necessarily should be blaming the US for all the world's troubles, I've no great regard for their foreign policy on the whole. Years ago I wrote an assignment for a paper entitled something like "Defending New Zealand", where I argued that if it was in the US's interests to defend us they would, and if not – they wouldn't. I still believe this.

I'm not a huge fan of the present regime in China either since they seem to have given up the idea of not interfering in other countries' internal affairs. And as I said before, the best we can hope for is to run some sort of balancing act between the two and hope to God that when the elephants fight, our particular clump of grass manages to stay out of the way.

larry said...

Your last paragraph neatly nails ... skewers... the conundrum. The acid test for both options remains our National best interests. Our choice can in reality be to plump ... for neither. Our position in the world strategic and diplomatic forums is so irrelevant to all but ourselves that no one will care ... or notice if on a case by case basis we choose to both hunt with the hounds while galloping with the bunnies. No solemn treaties ...remember SEATO? can be compromised with our win win pragmatism. We dont do treaties these days. Should the tides turn then again ... who out there cares what the mouse that roars thinks and does?. Cute arguments Hemsley ... Trotter ... might catch the eye of an Academic at VUW but will never make the 6 o'clock news. In this environment Hunting with both hounds AND hares is not as silly as it sounds.

Wayne Mapp said...

The flaw in these arguments that New Zealand can just stand aside, is our relationship with Australia.

We have a formal security agreement with Australia, the Canberra Pact. We also have CER and the right of New Zealanders to live and work in Australia, without needing to pass any immigration test.

All these things come with obligations. Basically to stand with Australia. Not necessarily in everything, as our differences on Iraq demonstrated. But certainly on the fundamentals. Anything that can be credibly be seen as a realistic threat to Australia will necessarily engage us as well. Not just at the time, but also in preparedness. In defence terms, that means that New Zealand cannot diverge too significantly from Australia. We have to have the same basic systems and approach, though obviously on a lesser scale. It does not need to be proportionate, that is, at a one fifth level, we can be less than that. But it can't be derisory. We do need to make a credible commitment to ANZAC security.

Odysseus said...

"Independent" foreign policy? What a crock. What does this mean? Neutrality? New Zealand contrary to the fantasies held by some is not the "Switzerland" of the South Pacific. We lack the resources and are unable to defend our interests on our own. Or does it mean freedom to pick and choose on a case-by-case basis? Having a foreign policy is not like buying a new fridge. It's about managing a complex, intersecting web of relationships based on shared values and interests over a very long term. Rather like a family. Chopping and changing on a whim or according to the latest fashion will create the perception of unreliability, and you will find yourself excluded from the most intimate and most important discussions that may affect your own future. It's well past time New Zealanders grew up.

PS: people like Gerald Hensley, whom you lampoon, instinctively knew all this.

larry said...

Responding to Wayne Mapp.

You said ... in a highly qualified context ... "Not necessarily":

"All these things come with obligations. Basically to stand with Australia. Not necessarily in everything, as our differences on Iraq demonstrated. But certainly on the fundamentals".

Cooperation with Australia, an informal association note; can accommodate New Zealand making its own and independent calls on any defense-related commitments.

There ... fixed.

larry said...

Hey Odysseus.

You are mistaken I don't do lampoon ... and Hensley can say and do as he wishes. I imagine my proposition will not attract he/those with a lifetime invested in case hardened traditional diplomacy and state craft. Fair enough.

A problem with NZ's position in the world is our "taking of sides" if any ... when our national interests and the weight of current debate supports a quasi-neutral stance.

We may historically and temperamentally favor a US/European-centric land of our fathers loyalty. This though flys in the face of the bald facts of our geography which casts us now (like it or not) ... as part of an Asian-Pacific trading and influence bloc-hemisphere.

And you know what. China!

We may soon know a little more of this upon Chippy's return from there. Is there a new wind blowing or is it just me?

There sure are signs (IMHO) of a warming to NZ by big ... and less inscrutable these days; ... Big Chinese Bro.

Furthermore ... the few Kiwis I talk to on the subject do NOT see our place as being within a US V China contest.

China also shows no sign of doing so. So should we.

There you go. All fixed.

Hounds and Hares it is for us.

larry said...

" I said ... yesterday quote:

"We may soon know a little more of this upon Chippy's return from there (Deng/China) ***. Is there a new wind blowing or is it just me?

*** Today ... after first reports of the Chippy visit.

Sweetness and... maybe light?

On the surface all went swimmingly. But note that was "on the surface".

Below the waves ... there be dragons?

Time alone will tell.

Ask me again in 2033.

Wayne Mapp said...


New Zealand has a formal alliance agreement with Australia, the Canberra Pact signed in 1944. Australia is therefore an ally, in fact our only ally. In short, if Australia is attacked we are obliged to come to their defence. The Canberra Pact is reflected in the totality of New Zealand's relationship with Australia.

To become essentially neutral, as least as far as Australia is concerned, would mean New Zealand leaving the Canberra Pact. I am pretty certain the economic and social consequences of doing that would be quite severe.

sumsuch said...

Ideals matter in the modern age founded in 1945. We need to pull back from China, even if quietly.

Really funny how you don't address the real reality -- climate change. We can't do much but must do our bit and otherwise protect our wee country from last days assaults on us.

Silly, our country carries on with short-term politics over the cliff. 'Art of the Possible' brought us here. Monstrous egomaniacky talkers for the people would have been better than the 3 year incrementalists. All that will give us is monstrous right-wing talkers for the rich. Mussolinis and Hitlers shooting us over the cliff.

The Left is about reality or nothing. This is the end of times and you

sumsuch said...

'and you', I don't understand, nor meant. I'd have put a full stop. My premature end but not yours.