Winston Peters: Address To Otago University NZ Foreign Policy Class

Partisanship, Politics & Foreign-Policy:

A luxury New Zealand Cannot Afford

Thank you for your invitation to close this semester for your class.

There was a time when foreign policy was nonpolitical and when politicians held the view, that offshore, we would face the world as one people.  Sadly, that is not the case today and the formulation of foreign policy suffers from that adverse change.

As a consequence, there are dark clouds gathering on our foreign policy horizon and far, far too many of our countrymen-and-women, preoccupied with domestic affairs, do not see the linkages between events offshore and their own economic and social survival in this country.

As we follow the international news, major events are occurring abroad which threaten the very survival of hundreds of millions who face worsening poverty and starvation.

One of the reasons given for a domestic disinterest in foreign policy is that “there are no votes in it”.  That belief is a paradox given that New Zealand is one of the most outward-looking countries in the world.

But it probably explains the irony of a concern for climate change and its effects whilst ignoring that there is no sign-up from China, India, the USA, and Russia, to name just a few. 

And how many are questioning now the chance of real success in climate change initiatives taken by New Zealand when the aforementioned situation exists.

Real leadership has many features but none more than the ability to ask good questions and make quick decisions based on sound principles and well-considered positions, looking beyond the next corner and many after that, and remaining unwavering in the face of temporary adversity. 

Life was never meant to be easy and nor for that matter is politics, but difficult choices must yet be made based on four fundamentals: - democracy, the rule of law, freedom, and equality for all.

For years we’ve heard the phrase in New Zealand of “punching above our weight”. 

It is of course not true, but a beloved excuse for those who boast of representation in foreign affairs whilst never being committed to provide the adequate funding to do so.

For over four decades, with just two exceptions, our diplomats and MFAT have been asked to do a task from the very end of the Western Pacific without the means to do so.

That is not to suggest that they have not done an incredible job with the resources given them but it’s truly regrettable to reflect on the void of misunderstanding that exists between MFAT funding and economic performance back in New Zealand.

Singapore and Ireland are just two small country examples where politicians have understood the connection between wise resourcing of foreign affairs and trade policy and economic success back home. 

We could and should learn from them.

And today we face again serious security concerns emerging in the Pacific – The Blue Continent in which we live. Many of these concerns were avoidable and it may yet not be too late if lessons are learnt “right here, right now”, first by ourselves and second by like-minded countries.

Diplomacy and Diplomats should be confined to careerists dedicated to the art of diplomacy and not former politicians being “grass widowed”, “rewarded”, or as a “trade off” for early retirement from politics.  Only in exceptional exceptions should this rule not be followed. 

There are countries where you can look at New Zealand’s lack of progress in enhanced diplomatic connections and then examine the number of diplomatic appointments that have gone there having been former politicians.  Right there is an explanation for our failure. 

It’s not a difficult exercise.  You wouldn’t put a novice into a surgeon’s operating room or a gyrocopter operator into a cockpit of a 747.

But we’ve done that in Foreign Affairs and your political masters see nothing wrong with that.

Now that is not said to dissuade you from entering a career in our Diplomatic or Intelligence Services, the health of which are both critical to our country’s future.

We all live in hope that there may arise in Wellington a new understanding of the importance of diplomacy and a desire to see the importance of that profession be given its due credit. 

Diplomacy seriously matters and the better our diplomats, and the greater their resourcing, the sooner our country will be advantaged by it. 

And how should we act on the international stage?  We may be a small country, but we are one of only nine nations with a record of holding set term elections since 1854.  We do have something to be proud of.

Manners, civility, politeness, and the intention to deal with small nations in the same manner large nations expect to be treated should be critical to our thinking for with that change will come respect for New Zealand’s position and our standing in the world.

No people, or nation, will respect us if we behave in a patronizing fashion and we should never forget that. “When offshore we are our country’s message”.

And as in life so it is in diplomacy “you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression”.


And to put our present circumstances in perspective.

In the year 2000, 18 Pacific Island Forum members signed the Biketawa Declaration.  This was a framework for pursuing collective responses to security crises.

Clause (V1) was its essence: “Recognising the vulnerability of member countries to threats to their security, broadly defined, and the importance of cooperation among members in dealing with such threats when they arise”.

However, for that framework to succeed many of the signatories needed the assistance of wealthier countries, some of which were signatories to the declaration. 

Moving forward 22 years, just last week it emerged that the Australian Foreign Minister proposed doubling Australia’s Aid only to be declined. 

This information sits alongside the concerns expressed by many countries about the China – Solomon Islands Security Pact, which became a point of naked criticism by the Australian Labor Party of the Liberal Government in the recent campaign.

Which begs the question “have like-minded countries in the Pacific been doing enough to assist the economies and concerns of small Island nations?”   The answer is clearly no.

And for those who say “charity begins at home” let’s get one thing really clear.  The Pacific is our home and untoward events in the Pacific will have a most adverse effect on our economy and our security.

In March 2018 we sought to explain in a speech to the Lowy Institute in Australia what New Zealand’s new Foreign Policy stance would be. This speech was titled “Shifting the Dial, Eyes Wide Open, Pacific Reset”. 

We said we had formed the intention of leading change rather than managing a modified status quo.

We acknowledged that Australia was by a considerable margin the Pacific’s largest donor and that our two countries needed to be very clear-sighted about facing challenges in our region together because we had never, since 1945, needed each other more.

We acknowledged that the Pacific had become an increasingly contested strategic space, no longer neglected by Great Power ambition, and that Pacific Island leaders had “more options” leading to a degree of strategic anxiety.

We suggested that Australia, the European Union, the United States and others like ourselves “better pool our energies and resources” to maintain our relative influence.

We suggested a new formula to demonstrate a depth of understanding of the Pacific, exhibit friendship, including honesty, empathy, trust and respect, to seek solutions of mutual benefit, to achieve collective ambition with Pacific partners and seek sustainability by focusing on the Region’s long-term goals, New Zealand was going to be putting its money where our mouth is.

At that time the ratio of our development spending as a proportion of Gross National Income had declined from 0.30% in 2008 to 0.25% in 2016 and if not arrested would fall below 0.21% within 3 years, the lowest in the OECD. 

We committed to reverse that decline and return to the 2008 percentage figure with $714 million new funding over the next four years.

Then in a speech to The Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies in Georgetown, Washington DC, we expressed the view that “the Asia-Pacific region has reached an inflexion point, one that requires the urgent attention of both Wellington and Washington”. 

We said that was why we had come to Washington, and further “we unashamedly asked for the United States to engage more and said it was in their vital interests to do so. 

We further warned that time was of the essence.

We stressed that Pacific issues for both our governments were domestic as well as foreign policy matters. 

We stressed that more needed to be done working in partnership with Pacific Island countries and the need that all external actors have the Pacific Island’s interest in mind, including respect for the prevailing economic, social, and political conditions in the region.

For our part we promised that New Zealand was substantially increasing both the quantum and quality of its diplomatic footprint across the region.

Just this month the Indo Pacific coordinator for the USA, Kurt Campbell, conceded that better coordination is needed with Pacific allies to safeguard the region from external threats.

Mr. Campbell said that “the most important element going forward is that the United States has to step up its game across the board”. Mr. Campbell reiterated many of the concerns expressed in both the Lowy and Georgetown speeches. 

He said that while many countries were committed to safeguarding the Pacific “there is not as much coordination among some of those countries as you might expect”.

In 2018 and 2019 New Zealand urged a greater intensity on regional cooperation and it’s to be hoped that this will now urgently become the case.


To conclude.


Wise foreign policy for a small, isolated country is critical both at home and for our neighborhood.

It’s successes or failures dramatically affect this country’s citizens.

Whether they realise that or not their political leadership seriously should, alongside businesses and academics.

John Donne famously wrote “no man is an island”.

In the foreign policy sense this also applies to countries and that understanding is as important to our country’s future as any other area of politics.