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.
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.