A hundred years on from Gallipoli, and a few days after the massacre in in Paris, where does New Zealand stand in the western alliance and what is out role in the world's troubles?

As we come towards the end of 2015, it's worth reflecting on what the commemorations of World War One, and in particular the Gallipoli campaign, have been all about. Why do the commemoration resonate so much with the New Zealand public?

As a member of the World War One Commemoration Panel, I have had particular cause to think about this, both from a personal and also a broader national perspective.

In my view, their importance is not only about the commemoration of the emerging sense of nationhood that occurred in 1915, it is also relates to how we now see ourselves in the world. The past connects to the present. We have not become disconnected from our past. If we had, we would think about Gallipoli in quite a different way than we do.

No doubt the reality of what it means for New Zealand to be a western nation will play out over the next few weeks as the West works out what they need to do to curb the threat of ISIS.

So our history is a powerful draw on the present. In 1915, Britain really was the mother country; that was how most New Zealanders thought of it. Her causes were our causes. That remained essentially true at the opening of the Second World War, as Prime Minister Michael Savage famous words “Where Britain stands, we stand,” testified.

We had no doubt about our identification. Within two short years this had changed. In 1942, following the fall of Singapore, we had to look elsewhere, thus the importance of the protection afforded by the United States from 1942, and for the next 45 years.

World War Two is over 70 years ago. How much have these concerns echoed down the years?  Well, not nearly as much as for Australia. But it remains fundamentally remains true that for most New Zealanders, we clearly identify as part of the West. And for many new migrants, though not all, this identification of New Zealand as a western nation is part of the reason why they come here.

Not everyone is comfortable about this. Maybe 25% of population, essentially of the Left, would prefer a different approach. At least to be like Sweden, and perhaps more like Chile, a country which is undoubtedly an advanced and sophisticated nation. Chile does not identify as the part of the West, though I suspect that of all the Latin American nations, Chile would have the closest affinity. Nevertheless Chile is never asked, and does not expect to participate in western causes.

Conservatives are naturally more comfortable about New Zealand’s identification as part of the West. The principal reason why I joined National was because Mrs Thatcher said the West could defeat the Soviet Union in our lifetime, not by war, but by superior values. But it did mean standing up to the Soviet Union, matching for instance the Soviet Union deployment of the SS20 missiles in Eastern Europe with the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles. For me it was a question of whose side were you on.

At the time I was doing my PhD in Cambridge and was also attached to the British Army as a Territorial Army Officer. I saw the Cruise and Pershing missile issue as an essential test of western resolve. Chancellor Schmidt of West Germany, and also the leader of the SDP, had no doubt as to where Germany had to stand on this issue. The fall of the Soviet Union a few years later had, at least in part, its origins in this test of will.

What does this have to do with today’s events? For the past 15 years, the West has been engaged in a struggle against radical Muslim terrorism. This has many causes, many of them created by ourselves. Nevertheless, the reality is that there have numerous acts of terror directed at civilians in a number of Western nations. The most notable is 9/11, with this week’s attacks in Paris being the worst since then.

So the question becomes what we do about it? At the very least the attacks have to be prevented, to the best extent possible. The ISIS terrorists have been quite clear. They say very directly they are attacking western nations and western values. Can the west afford to leave the ISIS pro-state in place to plan, to train and to support further terrorist attacks?

This is where the question of how New Zealand identifies itself comes into play. If we see ourselves as a western nation, we will have to be part of the western response. If we do not, then we don’t have to contribute.

To date both the governments of Helen Clark and John Key have felt impelled to act, and often in quite a muscular way. Willie Apiata did not win his Victoria Cross by being part of a logistics effort. Nevertheless western governments have choices. They can be part of the inner group, literally taking the fight to the enemy, or they can be part of the support team. An essential role, but clearly with less risk, and less identification than a more “direct action” role, the term often used by Helen Clark to describe the role of the SAS in Afghanistan. When in Afghanistan I flew on a Swedish C130. Sweden is no longer a neutral country, but it carefully calibrates its contributions to western causes.

Of course so does New Zealand, except we make a different judgment to Sweden, driven in part by our history, and by how we see ourselves today.

New Zealand remains part of the inner group. It is how we primarily want to be seen. We are not as insistent about this as is Australia, but we do enough so there is no doubt about our role.

Will New Zealand continue to see ourselves like this?

Probably yes. Although Labour opposed the deployment of trainers to Iraq, I suspect had they been in government they would have made the same decision as National. But the Greens would not have done so. Civil aid would have been seen as more appropriate. But that is more than most South American nations contribute. They don’t do so because they see no need to involve themselves, even at a humanitarian level, in western causes. Right across the New Zealand political spectrum, history remains a powerful draw.

In the next few weeks I suspect western nations will take a more forthright approach to ISIS. It will involve “boots on the ground” even if this is mostly special forces directly supporting the Iraqi Army. New Zealand is likely to be asked to play our part. History will be as much a guide as to what we will do as any other factor. Because it is our history that defines us.

Comments (12)

by Murray Grimwood on November 16, 2015
Murray Grimwood

WW1 was about a dominant Empire being challenged. Ironically, a third contender emerged as the most powerful; something not many noticed until after the second conflict.

All have been in the Middle East - since William Knox D'Arcy, via Churchill, Fisher, BP, etc - for one thing; oil.

Those who live atop the resource, and who otherwise live in a place resource-depleted by successive 'civilisations', fight back. How unsurprising. Maybe some are born elsewhere, disenfranchised and merely act by association. Can be traced back to the same thing.

We are now overshot, overdepleted, heading for a Seneca event, and worshipping a proxy; the only way out of that is war, politically. Blame-shifting, in essence. The simple question asks; Who were the first terrorists?

Heck, you can even draw parallels between the oh-so-sure-of-themselves Crusaders of yesteryear, and France 'retaliating' today.

But of course, that's all unpalatable to westerners - we couldn't possibly be the bogey-men. To avoid finding out that we might be, we''d have to believe/regurgitate the 'Saudi America' line.

Play our part? We've already been doing that for about 3 generations - consuming the oil.

by william blake on November 16, 2015
william blake

The end of the Cold War saw the supremacy of capitalism, the old left - right dichotomy became meaningless under the hegemony of capital. Nationhood went down the pan with globalisation, perhaps this is why we are talking about changing the flag and not really caring much one way or another. Our main trading partner is China and many new Kiwis are from Asia. What is the Asian perspective on the Wests' ongoing Middle Eastern wars and corresponding escalation of European terrorism?


by Katharine Moody on November 16, 2015
Katharine Moody

Because it is our history that defines us.

History defines Syria as well, and this is an excellent summary;


What we need to think about is that Syria's prolonged drought and depletion of its aquifers to irrigate crops and feed its population boom (both its own births as well as all the refugees it was taking in from surrounding conflicts) .. is a scenario repeated everywhere in that Arabian Aquifer System;


I see what the world is facing as primarily being a resource conflict too (food and water being in short supply). It's bigger than any individual, fractured uprising in a single far away state, as the above map shows.

These war torn societies will never rebuild. Where refugees flee, they will never return. I think a lot of places will become near completely depopulated. The flow of people won't be able to be contained. 

by Lee Churchman on November 16, 2015
Lee Churchman

So the question becomes what we do about it?

The question only makes sense if "the west" is actually capable of doing something effective about it, which it has proven in the last 15 years that it really isn't.

A couple of days ago was the 75th anniversary of the obliteration of Coventry. That's what real war looks like. You can't really be at war without accepting the possibility of military and, more importantly, civilian casualties on your side. Yet, even though our countries are in a de facto state of war with Islamic State, we are led to think that "war" only really happens over there, to 'them", and thus we have a collective heart attack over what are nothing more than feeble, minor, retaliatory strikes by IS. Mature and reasonable societies would understand and be accepting of the price of war, but not us.

The west isn't even capable of politically sustaining the kind of military casualties that would be required to successfully prosecute the war. Hence, the Americans have spent years thinking they can fight terrorism by lobbing ordnance from great distances or from so high in the air that they can't distinguish targets, and then wondering why it doesn't work. The domestic political and media realities of the west make it virtually impossible to successfully prosecute the war on terror. 

Given this, it's going to be hard to motivate reasonable people to care over much about our response.

by Wayne Mapp on November 17, 2015
Wayne Mapp

This is a reply to comments on both Josie's item and mine.

At some level we do have to persuade ISIS to change its view. By this I mean that the people from New Zealand and other countries who have gone to Syria will return. They will need to be re-integrated into society, and they will need help to do so.

As for "boots on the ground", well in my view that will be necessary. The goal must be for the Iraqi state to retake the territory currently occupied by ISIS.

It won't be like Iraq 2003, since the support will be to help the Iraqi Army defeat ISIS, not to defeat the the Iraqi Army as was the case in 2003. In short it is not an invasion, rather it is supporting a sovereign state to deal with a major insurgency in their country.

So that means special forces to help mentor and organise the Iraqi army operations, to provide better on the ground intelligence, to carry out in depth operations, to operate specialist weapons and help direct air power. This will means thousands of western special forces, but not tens of thousands. This is well within the capabilities of the special forces of France, the US, and like minded partners. Realistically Russia will do the same in Syria.

Modern military operations do not have the same risk to civilians as in previous conflicts, since most actions involve precision weapons. But it is not risk free.

Given the danger of ISIS, can we really leave them in their caliphate to continue to attack both western countries and also any people in the Middle East they disagree with? 

I recognise that ISIS is not a threat like Hitler, but that does not mean we can safely ignore them in their caliphate, and only deal with the people they send to attack us.

Ultimately Syria and Iraq will be rebuilt as functioning societies. Civil wars do not last forever. And once that happens many of the refugees will return.



by onsos on November 17, 2015

The purpose in being in the inner group would be that we can influence the military and political strategy of other members of the inner group.But we can't do that; we don't have the clout, and we never will.

by onsos on November 17, 2015

The attempt to train and equip the Iraqi forces to deal with ISIS is not working. Without the support of the population, those force are riven with internal divisions and are not really capable of doing anything except suppress their own population, fight among themselves, and engage in corrupt activities. It has proved incapable of dealing with ISIS within Iraq's borders thus far, and there is no reason to think that will change.

That Iraqi force crossing the border into Syria would be a worse disaster.

Assuming it could be mobilised effectively, the Iraqi military would be seen as an invading force in Syria by all the players (ISIS, non-ISIS insurgents, and Assad's regime). Introducing this additional force to the equation would not improve things. This isn't helped by the likely atrocities that its forces would commit.

There are only two options for suppressing ISIS militarily--Assad (and, by proxy, Putin), and an actual invasion by Western forces.

by onsos on November 17, 2015

"Modern military operations do not have the same risk to civilians as in previous conflicts, since most actions involve precision weapons. But it is not risk free."

This is simply not true. While the technologically advanced militaries of the West have an increasing amount of 'precision' weapons, they also increasingly fight from a substantial distance, and with huge amounts of ordnance. Between basic misses, the acceptance of collateral damage and the misidentification of targets, these attacks cause appalling civilian casualties.

by Fentex on November 17, 2015

where does New Zealand stand in the western alliance

Oh, there's a "Western" alliance is there?

Not a "Civilised alliance" or any question of independence. It's putting the issue starkly, right there in the question isn't it? What gang do we bring what weapons to?

And it's oh so important because a couple of hundred westerners were killed. A short while ago as many Kenyans were killed by similar forces but, meh, they weren't westerners, not in the gang, so, meh.

Ten odd years the west killed tens of thousands of easterners against the wests' own laws, but, meh, they were easterners, so meh.

Personally I don't want to be in the gang.


by Lee Churchman on November 17, 2015
Lee Churchman

Modern military operations do not have the same risk to civilians as in previous conflicts, since most actions involve precision weapons. But it is not risk free.

by Rich on November 17, 2015

we would think about Gallipoli in quite a different way than we do

It was pointed out to me the way that all the celebrations of the WW1 anniversary have had the causes of that war carefully airbrushed. One of those causes, of course, was an over-reaction to a "terrorist" incident by Austro-Hungary. If they hadn't used that as a casus belli, the outbreak of WW1 could have been deferred and may have been avoided. Equally, had Britain (which essentially ruled NZ) decided, as it intended before August 1914, to remain neutral, the participation of the British Empire would have been avoided - which would possibly have left Germany in a stronger position on the continent, but would have also left Britain in a wealthier and stronger position outside.

The narrative which is being promoted is that WW1 was an outlier and our other wars, up to the present day, have been justified and necessary defence of vital interests. I'd argue that WW1 is actually the template for most of our wars - the use of military force as a result of overzealous attachment to alliances with global powers seeking their own national advantage.

by Andrew P Nichols on November 18, 2015
Andrew P Nichols

Where does NZ go? 

As someone who started out in his teens and 20s as a card carrying Muldoon Nat politically, like Mapp terrified of the Russian "threat"  , I have come in the years since (now 57) to the conclusion that we need to distance ourselves as far as we can from the dangerous destabilising US as fast as we can. One wonders just how many whitewashed atrocities it takes before an NZ govt and its retired functionaries like Mapp say "Enough! Take your lies and wars and put them where the sun doesnt shine!"

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