That’s the upshot of the Government’s definitive fall into line with Five Eyes and NATO, in supporting the war against Russia this week. It’s a remarkable “rush to war” and needs much more debate and analysis than we’ve been seeing.
Military deployment is not simply an “operational matter”, and requires considerable debate. After all, this week’s departure of a Hercules aircraft with 50 personnel is the first time since the 1930s that this country has sent troops to a European war.
The Death of NZ’s “independent foreign policy”?
New Zealand’s vaunted “independent foreign policy” has always been a myth, or at least overstated. But this week it’s become very clear that it barely exists anymore. Although the small commitment of troops and aircraft is largely symbolic in nature, New Zealand has nonetheless joined NATO – for the first time – in a military conflict.
As Matthew Hooton writes today in the Herald, despite all the attempts to explain why this country is going to war for moral reasons, “In reality, Ardern is working hand-in-glove with our Five Eyes partners and NATO, especially with the British”. And he suggests that our traditional allies must have simply insisted that New Zealand fall into line by sending troops.
Hooton concludes that we can put to bed this idea that New Zealand has an independent foreign policy: “this week’s deployment, against the Government’s stated objectives, indicates we don’t have strategic autonomy either. We’ve chosen our side – or it has chosen us – and it is Washington, London and Canberra, not Moscow and Beijing.”
He suggests that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is returning New Zealand to an early 20thcentury role of loyally following Western Anglo countries into war. In this regard, Ardern is “New Zealand’s most traditionalist foreign-policy prime minister since Robert Muldoon”. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to Michael Joseph Savage’s pronouncing in 1939 that “where [Britain] goes, we go; where she stands, we stand”.
On the political left, there are also those who are in no doubt that this decision is eroding New Zealand’s independent foreign policy. Former Minister of Disarmament and Associate Foreign Minister Matt Robson (from the Helen Clark administration) has argued this week that joining up with NATO will have significant ongoing consequences: “without public discussion, the Labour Government, like National before it, has drawn us into the largest nuclear-armed military alliance in the world, Nato, and has signed up to the encirclement strategy of Russia and China.”
Another former minister, Peter Dunne, says previously New Zealand has only sent “post-event peacekeepers and reconstruction forces” to conflict zones, but with this latest move, especially in moving away from UN-mandated sanctions, “New Zealand will now find it more difficult to resist United States’ and British pressure to become involved in similar situations in the future”. He suggests New Zealand’s “independent foreign policy is slowly but surely being whittled away”.
The slide into war
Just as the frog doesn’t jump out of the slowly heating water, and then it’s too late, there’s a sense in which the New Zealand Government has been slowly but surely edging further into the Ukraine war, discarding any neutrality. The thin edge of the wedge was the sanctions, which came after the initial $6m in humanitarian aid. This was followed by the dispatch of some surplus helmets and body armour. Then the deployment of nine intelligence analysts to the UK and Belgium. Then a donation of $5m to NATO. And finally this week came the big shift to giving money to buy arms, and flying logistical support and personnel over to Europe.
All along the way, it’s possible that the New Zealand Government was hoping that their latest concession to demands from traditional allies might be enough to satisfy them. Instead, it’s led to the expectation of greater involvement.
Is New Zealand actually at war with Russia, officially? On TV on Tuesday, Rear Admiral James Gilmour couldn’t deny it, instead conceding that “I think it’s reasonably clear that our status as a neutral country has shifted”, saying he would leave the country’s exact war status to the lawyers.
A hawkish atmosphere is developing in New Zealand
The Labour Government’s decisions to escalate their involvement and support for the NATO military campaign against Russia have not simply been due to international pressure. There has been a growing hawkish atmosphere domestically, too.
National is strongly backing Labour’s march to war, and applying pressure for the Government to do even more. And National’s defence spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, keeps pushing for the expulsion of the Russian Ambassador, which is likely to escalate tensions even further. The Greens are providing some sort of counter to the shift towards war, but clearly they have not so far made it a major coalition issue at leadership level.
There’s also some public appetite for military escalation – evidenced by the number of yellow and blue flags displayed everywhere, and the revulsion caused by the atrocities shown nightly on the TV news. But to what extent the public agrees with supplying arms and sending troops to help with the war against Russia isn’t clear. It’s notable that a survey out this week in Australia – a much more hawkish nation than ours – shows that only 36 per cent favour sending military who might get involved in conflict, and even when it comes to supplying lethal military supplies, only 55 per cent approved. So in New Zealand, it’s far from certain that the public are really as behind this as some in the media are making out.
The New Zealand Labour Government has of course been increasingly hawkish itself. Since coming to power in 2017 it committed to spend an extra $20bn more on military hardware – especially on aggressive submarine-hunting airforce planes. Labour is boasting that their defence spend has gone up from 1.11 per cent of GDP under the John Key Government to 1.54 per cent.
Lack of debate
Has there been sufficient debate about New Zealand’s slow but sure shift into the Ukraine war? Hardly. Partly this has been due to the fact that our involvement has followed some slow but escalating steps and many could be excused for hardly noticing the extent of New Zealand’s interventions. Of course, that is how many disastrous wars have started, notably Vietnam and, more recently our twenty-year war in Afghanistan that ended with the Taliban back in complete control. Like in Afghanistan we are seeing atrocities and abuses on a regular basis, and it’s human nature to want to “see something done”, but alternatives to war and aggression are hardly being discussed at the moment.
Surely we can at least expect Parliament to be having robust debates about sending New Zealand troops to Europe? This simply hasn’t happened, and it doesn’t look likely to happen. The biggest change to New Zealand’s foreign policy in 35 years is going unchallenged and undiscussed.
Peter Dunne lamented yesterday that the Government simply isn’t being upfront about the magnitude of the changes to foreign policy. He says: “If a general foreign policy reset is now underway prompted by the Ukraine invasion, New Zealand needs to make the scope of that change very clear to friends and allies from the outset”.
In his analysis this week, Matt Robson suggests that the current Cabinet seems ignorant of what aligning this country with NATO really means, as well as ignorance of the complexities of the Ukraine-West-Russia dynamics. He argues that the Government needs to do some background research, and this “should be discussed by Cabinet so that we develop our policy on the Ukraine by understanding the complexities. Cabinet needs to step back in what seems to be a rush to war under the nuclear umbrella.”
What about other options?
There’s been a tiny element of humanitarian aid in the Government’s approach to the Ukraine crisis – but really just enough to dispel the notion that a totally military approach is being taken.
Similarly, we are doing virtually nothing in the one area that could make the most difference – providing refugee resettlement during the crisis. The Russian invasion has created the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War, and yet all New Zealand has done is give out some working visas to relatives of the few Ukrainians who already live here.
That’s a total of just 202 visas in the context of 4.5m displaced people. If New Zealand was really keen to take a humanitarian approach to the crisis, it’s here that New Zealand could afford to be much more generous.
Crucially, New Zealand could also push much harder for reform of the institution set up to deal with these issues – the United Nations. The Ukraine conflict has once again exposed the weakness of a system that protects superpowers through the Security Council veto. Abandoning UN processes for imposing economic sanctions and going to war, as New Zealand has done with Ukraine, doesn’t solve that – it just returns the world to a place where the international bullies are free to threaten and dominate smaller and poorer nations. That isn’t the type of world we claim to want, but one which our current actions are leading to.
Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society.