How should New Zealand see itself in world affairs, and does Chile provide a model for how we might do so?

As part of my extensive reading on the wars of the twentieth century, both from personal interest and as a member of the World War One Commemoration Panel, I have recently read “Unnecessary Wars” by Australian historian Henry Reynolds. Although ostensibly about the Australian involvement in the Boer war, it is really an indictment of Australia’s involvement in the West’s wars generally, especially those since World War Two. The last chapter says it all in the heading, “Dangerous allies or great and powerful friends?”

I suspect that Reynolds is on something of a lonely crusade. Australians, both the political classes and the great majority of the people, see the United States alliance as fundamental to their security, and as a means of gaining greater leverage in the world. While being a core ally of the United States may have its price, Australians greatly value the insider access to the decision makers in the United States. It gives them a sense of a shared enterprise.

However, if the question is somewhat futile in Australia, surely it is much more pertinent in New Zealand. We have none of Australia’s pretensions of being a serious middle power. We are no longer a member of ANZUS. We are arguably the safest country in the world, though in large measure this is due to the bulwark of Australia protecting us from the North. So we ought to have a degree of choice that would not be so obvious for Australia.

In practice, even if we do have such a choice, we choose not to exercise it to any marked extent. Even when Prime Minister Clark chose not to be part of the Iraq invasion, she compensated by bolstering our forces in Afghanistan, including the SAS, she sent a frigate and an Orion to the Gulf, and of course deployed Army Engineers to Iraq after the initial invasion and once there was a UN mandate. The total of these deployments amounted to a very large percentage of the combat capability of the New Zealand Defence Force.

None of these things would even be contemplated by Chile. In fact Chile does not feel obligated to provide any particular support to the Syrian refugees, other than its usual UN monetary contribution. Yet Chile is a well regarded member of the family of nations. It is an active participant in the TPP. So there is no trade risk by not contributing to western causes. In fact according to Ambassador Torres, Chile is a western nation, though without any of the expectations that New Zealand has of itself.

So what are the differences between Chile and New Zealand, and could we change our situation so that we became more like Chile?

The most obvious difference is that New Zealand sprung from Britain, not Spain. Britain remains a leader within the West. In fact the Anglo countries still have a preferred position in world affairs. When I attended the NATO-ISAF conferences on Afghanistan as Minister of Defence, the speaking order was the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand. All other countries, including nations such as France and Germany followed. I ultimately felt compelled to ask the Secretary General of NATO, the former Danish Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen, to change the speaking order so that New Zealand was around about eighth to speak. Unsurprisingly the Australian Minister was more than pleased to speak at second or third. Being in a preferred position has its price. We are inevitably going to be asked to contribute to all major western causes.

It used to be said that New Zealand could become more like the Nordic countries, with a greater level of choice. But over the last two decades the Nordics have become more deeply enmeshed in western causes. Norway and New Zealand alternated their deployment of special forces in Kabul. When in Afghanistan I was flown on a Swedish Hercules. So the Nordics no longer provide a case of exceptionalism.

Hence the reason for Chilean question. Of all the South American countries, Chile is most like New Zealand, and of course bounds the Pacific. The Chilean Navy has a long standing connection with the Royal Navy, and their principal naval vessels are relatively new ex Royal Navy frigates. Chile is a regular participant in RIMPAC, the premier United States led naval exercise in the Pacific.

Will we take a lesson from Chile?

In the near future probably not, at least not to the extent of a full adoption of the Chilean model. But there are continuing signs that New Zealand, irrespective of who is the government, is taking for a more nuanced approach. The deployment of trainers to Iraq, as opposed to combat troops was a careful calibration of commitment. Canada, under its new government, has also taken the same path.

Our commitment to Australia will always influence us. In practical terms this is primarily about working together the South Pacific, but in extremis we will always come to Australia’s aid, irrespective of the underlying reason for the commitment.

The Pacific will ultimately be the lens for the evolution of our security policy. We will do, or should, do everything we can to avoid any entanglement in a serious rift between China and the United States. This does not require us to absent ourselves from a constructive security relationship with the United States, but it does mean we should look for a careful balancing of commitments. After all to give substance to the assertion of an independent foreign policy you have to say “no” from time to time.

Comments (3)

by Rich on May 05, 2016

I'd say Ireland would be a good model. They manage to stay outside military entanglements while being respected for their contributions to peacekeeping efforts.

Their defence budget is half of ours (for a similar population and land/sea area) and they perform a wider range of roles (such as air ambulance and SAR cover).


by Wayne Mapp on May 05, 2016
Wayne Mapp


Ireland is quite instructive, and as you say is well regarded internationally. As you know Ireland's history with the UK explains much of the difference in the defence policy between Ireland and New Zealand.

New Zealand has a vastly larger ocean domain than Ireland, stretching from the Antarctic to the Equator (Tokelau and the northern Cooks).

In particular this explains why New Zealand has the P3 Orion aircraft, and is in fact the smallest nation to operate this capability. For the same reason our Navy is also substantially larger than that of Ireland. This would explain virtually all of the difference in the defence budgets of the two nations (Ireland 0.5% of GDP, NZ 1% of GDP), given that the armies of both nations are of a similar size. 

But overall Ireland does show there are alternative paths. 

However, the importance of the Australian relationship will always limit just how far we can diverge from them. I also note that Chile was in RIMPAC for many years when we were not.


by Charlie on May 08, 2016

Thanks for the post Wayne: I think you make an excellent point.

If we adopt this approach, it means we need a military that is configured more like Chile too: Designed to work as a self contained unit to defend our patch, rather than just as an appendix to some greater force. To police our sphere of influence and, just as you say, combine operations with our Aussie friends in extremis

Such a force would be largely maritime and capable of:

1/Patrol, interception and military action within our land and sea area

2/Maintaining our sphere of influence by helping our friends in the Pacific Islands protect against fish poaching by Asian fleets

3/Undertaking an island assault in the event of natural disaster or coup/genocide in the Pacific

Following this thinking, it becomes clearer what our military should begin to look like:

We would likely need fewer permanent soldiers, but trained and equipped as marines rather than as a land army. A well trained and equipped army reserve. We wouldn't need a 100 LAVs (what a stupid purchase that was!). We would need a competent replacement for the problematic Canterbury along with a squadron of assault helicopters to operate from it. A fleet of competent blue water and inshore fisheries protection vessels. Replacements for the aging Orions and Hercules.

Lastly, and most controversially, a jet (or even prop) fighter force to provide maritime interception, light ground attack and air cover. Capable of carrier operations so it could integrate with Aussie carrier operations. These low end fighters are not particularly expensive to buy or operate. Embraer Super Tucano?

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