MUCH IS BEING MADE of the fact that New Zealand firms are exporting military equipment to unsavoury regimes. Geopolitical consultant, Paul Buchanan, reflected the views of many critical of New Zealand’s involvement in the international arms trade when he declared on his Kiwipolitico blog: “If NZ is to regain a semblance of integrity in diplomatic circles, its foreign policy decision-making matrix must change away from trade obsessed expediency and towards the principled but pragmatic orientation that grants it the independence that it claims to have.”
“Regain a semblance of integrity”? Seriously? Does the rest of the world truly monitor New Zealand’s miniscule contribution to the international arms trade so closely? Are foreign chancelleries truly so insensitive to their own governments’ complicity in the world’s horrors that they expect all other sovereign states to be unblemished moral exemplars?
Certainly, New Zealand’s arms exports are not going to be condemned by their principal recipients (which, if Buchanan is to be believed, includes the NATO countries and many of our most important regional allies). Nor should we tolerate the slightest reproof from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (USA, China, Russia, United Kingdom, France) who also just happen to be the world’s five largest arms exporters. Unlikely, too, that this country will suffer criticism from the really “bad buggers” on our list of arms importers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They, at least, have no expectations of ever being regarded as unblemished moral exemplars. Murderous autocracy is its own reward.
So, if the foreign offices and state departments of the world are not going to waste a moment tut-tutting little New Zealand for daring to export military equipment to their friends, allies and leading petrochemical suppliers, then who is?
A couple of idealistic RNZ journalists, seemingly. Tipped-off, perhaps, by that outspoken anti-imperialist Valerie Morse, who has never seen a gun she didn’t abhor – unless it was in the hands of her wannabe freedom-fighter friends “exercising” in the Urewera bush.
Then there’s the Greens’ Golriz Ghahraman, who has been tut-tutting fit to beat the band. But, then, Ghahraman, if properly cross-examined, would probably admit to not wanting New Zealand to have an arms industry at all – or, for that matter, an army. In the eyes of the Greens, guns (and mortar sights) are inextricably bound up with imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy and all those other things deemed injurious to children, animals and other living things. Away with them!
One can only feel a pang of sympathy for the boffins in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). On the receiving-end of a flurry of Official Information Act requests, they had little option but to reveal the extent to which New Zealand’s high-tech industries have been making the most of the world’s insatiable appetite for the weapons of war.
Promoting trade is, after all, MFAT’s job, and, to give them their due, they’re bloody good at it. Like the rest of the world’s diplomats and bureaucrats, ours tend to work on the principle that what is not expressly prohibited is tacitly permitted. Should someone have been looking over someone’s shoulder when the application for a permit to export military equipment to Saudi Arabia and the UAE came across their desk. Probably. Politicians hate surprises, so a good public servant anticipates trouble before it becomes a headline. Even so, no laws were broken.
Buchanan has posed the question: “Principled, pragmatic or expedient”. Once again, the proposition is a curious one. Is he arguing that it is possible to be both principled and pragmatic but not expedient? His positioning of the word “or” would suggest so. But to treat all expedient decisions as in some way morally objectionable is to render practical diplomacy impossible.
The conduct of sovereign states is almost always dictated by what their rulers deem expedient. Indeed, it is easier to mount a moral case for the most principled diplomacy being that which delivers the most expedient outcomes for all the states involved in an international dispute. Pragmatism, in this context, may be seen as the ability to obtain the maximum of one’s country’s objectives with the minimum of moral and material compromises.
Buchanan would also have New Zealand draw a clear distinction between the moral status of its Five Eyes partners – most especially his homeland, the United States – and other international actors. Included on his list of countries with whom it is unacceptable to seek expedient outcomes one finds not only Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Indonesia, but also the People’s Republic of China. The latter is castigated by Buchanan for systemically abusing human rights at home, denying individual and collective rights as a matter of course and treating minorities as if they were foreign enemies.
As someone who has worked closely with not only America’s soldiers, but also America’s diplomats, Buchanan must be aware of the speciousness of this line of argument. The great distinction between Chinese and American imperialism is that China, for its whole history, has been a contiguous land empire. Unlike the United States, which, upon subduing (and in many cases exterminating) all those who hindered its expansion across the North American continent, proceeded to extend its imperial reach across the entire planet, China has been content to remain within its historical borders. Ethnic and religious threats to China’s rulers have always been dealt with internally. Threats to America’s global hegemony, by contrast, almost always originate offshore. From Korea to Vietnam, Afghanistan to Iraq, the USA – no less than China – has abused human rights with wanton and murderous abandon.
Buchanan’s laborious description of the United States process of determining whether or not arms should be supplied to a particular regime would be funny if it was not for the sobering fact that this former participant in “the decision-making chain” for “US military sales and training, etc. to Latin American countries” clearly believes every word he is writing. As if the sickening history of Uncle Sam’s murder and mayhem in Latin America was perpetrated by some other power. “The process was slow and circuitous but in the end it was comprehensive and transparent.” Tell that to the victims of the Contras, Paul! Tell it to the Mayans!
Perhaps it is Buchanan’s own experiences in Latin America that cause him to treat expediency as a dirty word. Certainly, what New Zealand finds it expedient to do differs greatly from what the United States considers expedient. Buchanan knows full well that New Zealand’s size and relative powerlessness severely restricts the harm it can do. Ultimately, the well-being of New Zealanders depends upon their country’s trading relationships with the rest of the world. Maximising that trade is, accordingly, the principled, the pragmatic and the expedient thing to do.
Buchanan is the son of a brutal imperial power. New Zealand used to be the colony of one and must now do all within its power to avoid becoming the colony of another. It ill-behoves a former citizen of the United States (and a newly-minted citizen of New Zealand) to lecture his adopted country on the morality, or otherwise, of its foreign policy. The Kiwi, unlike the Bald Eagle, is not a bird of prey.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 13 April 2021.