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ISSN 2816-1971

  • Nicholas Khoo

New Zealand Missing Foreign Policy Debate

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

The discourse on the recent release of a trio of defence policy documents highlights that the time has come for New Zealand to have a robust debate on its foreign policy objectives.

New Zealand Defence Minister Andrew Little releasing the 2023 Defence Policy and Strategy Statement
New Zealand Defence Minister Andrew Little at the launch of the defence policy papers, Friday August 4 2023. Image credit: Nick Perry/AP

*This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in Newsroom on August 8, 2023. It is used in accordance with the publication’s editorial guidelines.*

During the period between the breakdown of the US-New Zealand leg of the ANZUS alliance in the 1980’s through to 2008, from a historical perspective, New Zealand enjoyed an era of relatively abundant security. All good things went together. The era’s inhabitants enjoyed the virtues of globalization, economic exchange, and the positive role of international institutions. In addition to encouraging cooperation, these factors constrained the great powers, reinforcing the peace. To be sure, globalization was never as benign as its proponents imagined. The promise of economic exchange, international institutions, and great power peace was never fully realised. Nevertheless, in the main, these developments represented a welcome change from the Cold War era (1946-91).

The 1991-2008 era is well and truly over. In retrospect, it was a “holiday from history.” In it its place has come something quite different. Even a cursory perusal of reports produced by a variety of states representing a spectrum of ideological and strategic opinion suggests strong agreement on one point—the international security environment is deteriorating rather than improving. And this generalization spans multiple spheres and issues ranging from the environment to great power rivalry. If this conclusion seems overly stark, one need only peruse any of following: Australia’s 2023 Defence Strategic Review; China’s 2019 White Paper on its role in the World; Japan’s 2022 National Security Strategy; the United Kingdom’s 2021 Integrated Review; and the US’s 2022 National Security Strategy.

To have agency in this new era, New Zealand cannot passively accept what fate throws its way. On the evidence of a recently released trio of documents—a Defence Policy Strategy Statement, a Future Forces Design document, and New Zealand’s first National Security Strategy—the Hipkins administration has decided to get on the front foot.

Coinciding with the release, Defence Minister Andrew Little tweeted that “the domestic and international security environment has changed and our preparedness needs to change too.” This perspective is underpinned by a June 2023 analysis from New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Strategic Assessment document states clearly:

“New Zealand’s security has been based on a stable and secure strategic environment, reinforced by geographic distance and isolation. These assumptions no longer hold true - the Indo-Pacific region is now the central theatre for strategic competition, while geographic isolation no longer affords the protection it used to.”

For many observers of Indo-Pacific security, this is a welcome recognition that New Zealand requires increased investment in capabilities to address a more challenging international reality. But at least some Kiwis disagree strongly with this assessment. The Hipkins administration’s measured and sober approach has generated a critical response on twitter from former Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Clark asserts that New Zealand “is abandoning its capacity to think for itself & instead is cutting & pasting from 5 Eyes’ partners,” adding that the “drumbeat from officials has been consistent on this for some time.” Her claim is that “there appears to be an orchestrated campaign on joining the so-called ‘Pillar 2’ of #AUKUS which is a new defence grouping in the Anglosphere with hard power based on nuclear weapons. #NZ removed itself from such a vice when it adopted its #nuclear free policy.” And according to Clark, “another reason why #AUKUS Pillar 2 is problematic is that” it may contribute to New Zealand being seen as an Anglo-Antipodean outpost.

A few observations are in order.

First, Clark appreciates that national security is too serious a topic to be settled on twitter. She states that “NZ needs a full public debate on this & not an officialdom-driven realignment.” Agreed. The Hipkins administration's foreign and defence policy deserves a critical evaluation, far removed from the instant response world of cyberspace. This is to allow the spectrum of views on national security to be systematically laid out and critiqued in a rigorous way, and when the dust has settled, to be adopted as national policy.

Second, in a speech on he previous Friday introducing the three documents, Defence Minister Little highlighted that “in 2023 we do not live in a benign strategic environment.” Do the critics disagree? If so, how exactly do they disagree? What are their alternative strategic and tactical principles and policy options for the government? Do they stand up to intellectual, political, economic, and diplomatic scrutiny? A full debate will allow us to determine the answer to these questions.

Third, the importance of a debate is reflected in the academic references that Clark makes to to support her argument. Difference of opinion is par for the course in academia. And the academics cited by Clark have a particular interpretation of both regional security and New Zealand’s policy response to it. Suffice it to say that these views do not reflect the spectrum of informed opinion on these matters. Take New Zealand’s AUKUS policy as an example. This topic has been robustly discussed in various op-eds in our print and online media. Yet curiously, on AUKUS, only one academic is cited by Clark. Perhaps it is no surprise, but it is an academic that she agrees with. What about the alternative views? Why are the concerns raised by these analysts unconvincing? This is where the twitter platform is a less than ideal platform for attaining illumination.

Fourth, Clark is not a neutral on New Zealand’s defence and security policy. Far from it. She was a high-profile and influential Labour Party politician who wisely disagreed with the US on the Iraq War and successfully clinched New Zealand’s 2008 Free Trade Agreement with China. But times have changed. 2023 is not 2008. The government’s recent defence and foreign policy documents are responding to a very different strategic context. These documents highlight the fundamental interests that we share with Australia, Japan, the UK, the US, and like-minded countries in defending the current international order from a variety of challenges, including that posed by some aspects of China’s foreign policies. In assessing Clark’s public commentary on New Zealand foreign policy, this point needs to be fully appreciated.

Fifth, a rational state will survey the international environment, review its aims and capabilities, and devise a strategy to meet the challenges and opportunities. Domestic politics is a critical component in this process. For any defence and national security strategy to last the distance, there will have to be buy in from a spectrum of political opinion. At a minimum, the Labour and National Parties will need to broadly see eye to eye. And we haven’t heard from National on the these topics. Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to go further and seek a more broad-based coalition. This is particularly the case if the international strategic environment is as challenging as the recently released reports contend. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is counterproductive to adopt a policy that has not been stress tested by internal debate, let alone the inevitable test of international events.

In a joint statement that the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary Little released the previous Friday, it is stated that “we are investing to modernise our capabilities across land, sea and air, and are strengthening our relationships with friends and partners in the Pacific and beyond. As we work to safeguard our national security we will be proportionate, predictable and avoid unnecessary securitisation.” Clearly, some disagree with that characterisation.

It's about time New Zealand has a serious discussion on national security.

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


Nicholas Khoo is non-resident principal research fellow at the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, and associate professor at the University of Otago. He is a specialist on Chinese foreign policy, great power politics, and Asian security.



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