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ISSN 2816-1971

  • Rosemary Banks

Jumping on Lord Palmerston’s Grave: New Zealand’s Enduring Alliances and Security Partnerships

New Zealand needs to consider how it can value-add to its existing alliances and security partnerships beyond a convergence of values in order to reaffirm the strength of these ties given the unpredictable geostrategic future facing the region.

Photo credits: Hagen Hopkins/GETTY IMAGES

“An increasingly disrupted and contested world” is how New Zealand’s first National Security Strategy sums up the evolving geostrategic dynamic in the Indo-Pacific region. As the strategic competition between the United States and China becomes more acute, New Zealand is facing several challenges in its Pacific neighbourhood and beyond.

Here in New Zealand, these geopolitical developments in the Indo-Pacific have brought the conversation about national security and foreign policy back into focus. This is symbolised by no less than three recent speeches given by Prime Minister Hipkins outlining New Zealand’s approach to the evolving challenges in the Indo-Pacific. The New Zealand government has also released a series of documents outlining the country’s foreign policy assessment and defence policy measures in more detail.

In all his recent speeches, Prime Minister Hipkins emphasised the importance of New Zealand’s alliances and partnerships. He noted how as a small state that is committed to maintaining the rules based international order, New Zealand intends to continue to work with its allies and partners to achieve this objective.

Speaking at the 2023 Shangri-la Dialogue, Minister of Defence Andrew Little further reiterated the importance given by New Zealand to its alliances and partnerships by stating that, “We value the trust our partners place in us, and we will uphold our promises to them”. Indeed, New Zealand is recognised as being a reliable partner and ‘good international citizen’, fulfilling its international obligations to its Realm countries, the Pacific and beyond. So, in a contested regional geostrategic environment, how has New Zealand maintained its partnerships and what investments does it need to make to ensure that these alliances continue to endure?

Lord Palmerston famously stated that, “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow”. This self-confident assertion may be seen as either realpolitik or as a narrow and unsatisfactory simplification of relations between and among nation states. New Zealand is only beginning to come to terms with the geostrategic changes and dangers in our Indo-Pacific region. These require us to be thoughtful and systematic in the way we understand, nurture and manage the relationships that we depend on for our stability, our safety and our economy.

We need to be deliberate in nurturing these essential relationships, self-aware about the hard and soft diplomatic tools we use and alert to what could threaten or could undermine these relationships.

Fortunately for New Zealand, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese evidently disagrees with Lord Palmerston’s dictum. When they met in March, he told New Zealand Prime Minister Hipkins, “we are absolutely close allies and will remain that in perpetuity”. There is a permanence about geography that Lord Palmerston ignores, and taken literally, his statement would also overlook the fact that national interests change over time. This role that geography plays in influencing New Zealand’s foreign policy calculus is now also reflected in its National Security Strategy.

Nor does Palmerston make any allowance for what you might describe as the human side to international relations. Meaning that loyalty, reliability, trust and a long-term commitment are all part of the formula for enduring alliances, just as they underpin enduring human friendships.

When New Zealand and Australian political leaders meet, they typically exchange effusively warm characterisations of the trans-Tasman relationship. These are likely to hit the following notes – family contacts between our two countries, comradeship on the battlefield, regular exchanges between government leaders and officials, a common legal experience as well as our similar traditions, values and systems of government.

One of principles guiding New Zealand’s alliance management is mutual need, benefit or dependence. There is widespread recognition that New Zealand’s alliance with Australia has been mutually beneficial across both sides of the Tasman. This year New Zealand and Australia have also marked the 40th anniversary of the Closer Economic Relations Agreement.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta addressing the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs in June 2023 said, “Our relationship with Australia surpasses friendship. Australia is our indispensable partner. We are fortunate to have a neighbour and ally that shares almost all of our interests and wants us to succeed.” But for all these reassuring statements of closeness and a mutually beneficial relationship between New Zealand and Australia, there are deep and fundamental differences between our two countries.

The most succinct summation of these came from the late Allan Gyngell, one of the giants of Australian international affairs. Speaking at the University of Canterbury in 2018, he encapsulated these differences. Gyngell said Australia felt itself to be strategically vulnerable but economically strong, whereas New Zealand felt strategically secure but economically insecure.

It is this deeply different assessment of security risk that explains Australia’s full throated and bipartisan embrace of AUKUS. On this side of the Tasman, we insist upon our independent foreign policy and shrink from even the non-nuclear research options of AUKUS. This permanence of geography is also the driving force in New Zealand’s enduring but adapting relationships with its Pacific neighbours. While these are codified with a range of formalities, including constitutional responsibilities to the Cook Islands, Niue and Toklelau, there are no alliances as such. But these close to home connections must be considered when examining the characteristics that enable relationships to successfully endure.

There has always been a close focus on the Pacific Islands in New Zealand foreign policy but in earlier decades this was tinged with a touch of paternalism. In 2018, then Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters acknowledged that New Zealand needed a new approach, to reinvent Pacific relations on a basis of equality. This shift was reinforced by his successor, minister Nanaia Mahuta, who emphasised the building of resilience across the Pacific. These changes in the narrative were matched by increased diplomatic effort and resources. They illustrate, as a component of enduring relationships, the ability to adapt to changing times and circumstances as the Pacific Island countries gained in self- confidence, global connections and their own sense of agency.

One critical component of enduring alliances and relationships is the willingness to listen to, try to understand and then accommodate the other country’s situation or policy choices. Even when these choices are problematic.

Both Australia and the United States were confronted and challenged by New Zealand’s decision in the 1980s to adopt an anti-nuclear policy.

The ANZUS rift led to a dark period in New Zealand’s relationship with the United States, and to trans-Tasman tensions. But this unhappy chapter of our diplomatic history demonstrates that alliances and partnerships that have been painfully disrupted can – where mutual interests are at stake and with goodwill - be repaired.

In today’s more hostile geo-strategic environment, New Zealand has become more interesting as a political and security partner for the United States. We have salience as an established presence in the Pacific Islands region, where the US is seeking to expand its diplomatic footprint.

In the wider Indo-Pacific, New Zealand has credibility and long-standing links through our ASEAN dialogue status, our place in the regional trade and economic architecture and our membership of the Five Power Defence Agreement.

Looking through the wider global lens, New Zealand is also a valued partner for the US on those global issues where the Biden administration is strongly committed. We tick all the boxes- as a long-standing democracy at a time when democracy is being eroded around the world, as a believer in the multilateral system that underpins the rules-based order and as a defender of human rights and an advocate for ambitious climate action.

Beyond a convergence of values and being viewed as a ‘reliable’ and trusted’ partner, the principles of mutual benefit and dependence noted earlier have underpinned New Zealand’s alliances and partnerships. We have also shown deftness in handling issues of divergence with our allies and partners and have successfully managed differences resulting from these points of divergence.

All these are indeed positives. However, in the current geostrategic environment, there is only one test of a country’s “value added” that really matters in Washington and that is the contribution it is capable of making to international security. New Zealand’s future decisions on defence capability will be under close scrutiny, in Washington as in Canberra.

Despite the convergence of values, New Zealand must demonstrate how it can ‘value add’ and bring something to the table in order to ensure that its alliances and partnerships endure in the future. Articulating what we are bringing to the table and how we intend to contribute to international security will also demonstrate to our partners that we recognise something tangible is needed- beyond common values, mutual need and benefit as well as managing differences amicably- in this contested geostrategic environment in order to maintain the rules based international order which we as a small state cherish and benefit from.

This will also ensure that we continue to invest in our alliances and partnerships. Trust, shared interests, mutual benefit, adaptability, convergence of values and managing differences have all helped New Zealand’s alliance management so far. However, with the geostrategic strategic structure in a state of flux, we need to move beyond principles and values and articulate how we intend to ‘value add’ to make these partnerships last into the future.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.


Rosemary Banks is a New Zealand diplomat who served as New Zealand Ambassador to the United States between 2018 and 2022. As Deputy Secretary in New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Banks spearheaded the development of a new emergency response system and has also served as a Crown negotiator for the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process.



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