The Pacific Reset & the Blue Continent

Thank you for your invitation to speak with you this afternoon about New Zealand Foreign Policy.

After offering one or two general thoughts about the nature of foreign policy, the focus today will be the Pacific Reset and why its goals remain even more important today as when they were launched in 2018.

Now, first, foreign policy is unique when compared to other domestic-focused policy domains.

Sovereign governments have agency to adapt or change domestic policy settings as they see fit, bound only by their judgements about what is possible and what is not.

In contrast, in foreign policy, government agency is far more prescribed by the inter-dependent nature of the life of nations. New Zealand cannot simply live alone in peace.

Second, New Zealand is a small state reliant on a well-functioning rules-based international system to promote its interests. That system has been badly disrupted this past decade and is under severe strain.

To meet our foreign policy challenge requires both subtlety and thought.  

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 (between 2005-08 and 2017-2020), 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.

Instead, in foreign policy as elsewhere, this Government is caught in its bi-cultural cul-de-sac. “Why, you might ask.”

Well, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will on October 1 augment its Maori Policy Division, a group with currently four positions, with an additional 11 positions.

This will help neither our diplomatic nor trade ambitions. It’s a shocking waste of scarce resources that neither MFAT nor the country can afford.

It cannot and will not stand. 

Why? Because 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, Defence or Intelligence Services, the health of which are both critical to our country’s future.

We all live in hope that after the election 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 only one of 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 crisis’s.

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 year 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 during their last campaign.

Which begs the question “have likeminded 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 in Budget ‘18. We know that our partners sat up and took notice of our new seriousness to do our bit to promote security and prosperity in our neighborhood.

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 is 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.

We also worked hard to get like-minded partners together to compete with the cheap loans being showered upon Pacific nations by those who did not have the Pacific’s interests at heart.

We put significant effort into bi-lateral relationships with Japan and Indonesia, in particular, to bolster Pacific security.

We are now seriously concerned that the momentum we started has fallen by the wayside since 2020, because alongside our large investments the Pacific Reset also involved a highly active diplomacy, a feature of the Reset shockingly not pursued with vigor this last term by Labour’s foreign policy team.

Our foreign policy efforts were not limited solely to ODA and restoring lost capacity to MFAT.

Defence policy compliments foreign policy and targeted investments in defence strengthen our foreign policy credentials with our partners. When NZF joined the coalition in 2017 our spending on defence was 1.14% of GDP, well below the target of 2% of GDP.

In 2020 New Zealand First had raised that to 1.45% of GDP. But since then under Labour spending has once again fallen.

But our decision to purchase four P8’s and replace the ancient Hercules fleet with five new Herc’s seriously reinforced the seriousness of the coalition’s efforts to bolster its presence in the Pacific and elsewhere, a fact recognized by our partners when we were in government.

Since then, however, spending on both ODA and necessary defence procurements has been moribund. That is going to change.

To conclude:

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

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

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

As John Donne famously wrote, “no man is an island”. So too in foreign policy, it applies to countries and that understanding is as important to our country’s future as any other area of politics.