Hard Choices: When confronted with an unsanctioned military strike against a fellow member of the United Nations, a New Zealand prime minister has two viable choices. Either, she can line up behind New Zealand’s traditional allies and deliver a hearty endorsement of their actions. Or, she can take a stand on principle and distance her country from the justifications, decisions and actions of the aggressors.
THE LATEST STRIKE against Syria [14/4/18] marks a further deterioration in the conduct of international affairs. Of more concern, however, is the quality of the response it elicited from Jacinda Ardern. The New Zealand Prime Minister’s remarks were not the sort to inspire either confidence or respect.
In matters of this kind, a prime minister has two viable choices. Either, she can line up behind New Zealand’s traditional allies and deliver a hearty endorsement of their actions. Or, she can take a stand on principle and distance her country from the justifications, decisions and actions of the nation’s involved.
What a leader should not do is attempt to have a bob each way. Why? Because, as the Ancient Greek storyteller, Aesop, pointed out some 2,500 years ago: “He who tries to please everybody, ends up pleasing nobody.”
New Zealand prizes highly its contribution to the formation of the United Nations. The Labour Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, worked hard to advance the rights of small nations at the San Francisco conference which gave birth to the UN in 1945. Fraser, and just about every Labour PM since 1945, has chafed against the veto-powers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – rightly predicting that they would severely constrain the UN’s mandate to keep the global peace. Identifying the UN as the most appropriate forum for resolving the Syrian crisis and decrying the use of the Veto was, therefore, an entirely predictable and consistent position for New Zealand’s present Labour Prime Minister to adopt.
Had Ardern denounced the vetoing, by the United States, of a Russian Federation proposal for an international inquiry into the alleged chemical warfare attack on Eastern Ghouta, as well as the Russians’ tit-for-tat vetoing of a similar proposal put forward by the US, she would have elicited widespread support from UN member states.
That support would have grown if she had further declared her disappointment that military action had been initiated by the US, France and the United Kingdom (all permanent members of the Security Council) before inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had been given a chance to examine the scene of the alleged attack, gather samples, and make their report.
She could also have announced that, if the Eastern Ghouta incident was confirmed by the OPCW as a chemical attack, then New Zealand would be seeking a vote explicitly condemning its perpetrators at the UN General Assembly, as well as a re-confirmation of the UN ban against the deployment and use of chemical and biological weapons.
Such a course of action would have identified New Zealand as an outspoken defender of the UN Charter and encouraged other small states to take a stand against the precipitate and unsanctioned military actions of the United States and the two former imperial powers most responsible for the century of instability which has beset the nations of the Middle East – France and Britain.
At a more pragmatic level, such a response would undoubtedly have strengthened New Zealand’s relationship with that other permanent member of the Security Council, the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese have consistently and vehemently opposed unsanctioned and unprovoked military attacks against the sovereign territory of fellow UN member states.
Such would have been the high road for New Zealand: coherent, consistent and principled.
Alas, it was not the road Ardern chose to take.
Instead, having lamented the Security Council’s veto-induced paralysis, the statement issued by New Zealand’s prime minister went on to say:
“New Zealand therefore accepts why the US, UK and France have today responded to the grave violation of international law, and the abhorrent use of chemical weapons against civilians.”
Using fewer than 30 words, Ardern telegraphed to the world that New Zealand’s fine words about diplomacy and multilateralism should be dismissed as mere rhetoric. In reality, her country is perfectly willing to set aside its commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts between nation states, and the rule of international law, if the United States, the United Kingdom and France ask them to.
The alleged chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta pales into insignificance when set alongside the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and yet, in the latter case, the Americans were eager to present the UN Security Council with photographic evidence of their claims. There has been no equivalent evidential presentation in 2018. Nor should it be forgotten that the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved peacefully. This time, in spite of the risks, fighter-bombers and cruise missiles have been sent into action.
Rather than take an unequivocal stand for peace, the UN Charter and the rule of international law, New Zealand’s prime minister has chosen to talk out of both sides of her mouth. An opportunity to assume moral leadership and demonstrate political courage has been heedlessly squandered.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 April 2018.