Partners in the Pacific: Reflecting on a History of Internationalism

During my latest visit to Wellington in February of this year, I had hoped to find some interesting and unique local or regional books that I could not acquire in Washington, DC.  On my last day, I decided to stop in Arty Bees Books on Manners Street.  To my surprise, I found the first ever study of New Zealand’s defense system, Defending New Zealand: A Study of Structures, Processes and Relationships (1993), by one of my former professors at Victoria University, Dr. James Rolfe.  While some of the empirical information is no longer current, the book provides a snapshot of New Zealand defense environment and policymaking. In parts it tells a tale similar to (and is almost as witty as) the 2012 Australia New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) Lecture at Georgetown University given by New Zealand Ambassador to the US, Honorable Mike Moore.  Ambassador Moore’s speech was more sentimental and as you would expect did not focus on the thrills of policymaking, but drew on the experience of the ANZACs in WWI to reflect on contemporary international affairs. Both Dr. Rolfe and Ambassador Moore contend that New Zealand is internationalist at heart, never impartial, and prefers an institutions-based environment to level the field. 

As we commemorate ANZAC Day, with services held across the globe, we gain insight into the sacrifices of small states in defense of their allies and outside of their homeland.  American exceptionalism has taken US troops around the world in what seems to be perpetual conflicts, emergencies and wars both in support of others and defense of American ideals.  In New Zealand and Australia, however, defense takes on a different meaning.  My instant favorite excerpt from Rolfe’s classic text is as follows:

 Undoubtedly politicians do not believe that there are votes to be gained in pushing for increased defense expenditure, especially at the expense of housing, health or education.  But it is not likely that responsible politicians believe that the armed forces, with the resources allowed, could not achieve the tasks set for them. More likely there is a belief, unspoken or even unacknowledged, that there is no real need for armed force in the modern international order.  But just in case we are wrong, we will have a token organization which can be produced to work in conjunction with a larger state or group of states.  In the meantime, we will make unverifiable statements about our willingness and capability to operate as necessary in the region. (Rolfe, 1993: 167)

While September 11 changed the patterns of much of the West, defense is not necessarily a vote-winning topic for New Zealand politicians.  In New Zealand “when attention is focused on the activities of the armed forces, the question of cost is inevitably raised and from this follows the question of need.” (Rolfe, 168)  With few enemies (other than people bringing quarantined items through airport security), relatively small populations and a unique geography in the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia focus much of their regional energy into trade partnerships, maintain an ever closer security relationship with each other and rely heavily on the US. 

That being said, as Ambassador Moore pointed out, New Zealand has been a keen participator in international events and conflicts, as ANZAC Day reminds us. “During the First World War, 42 percent of New Zealand males between the ages of 19 and 45 fought, with a casualty rate of 58 percent. 40 percent of Australian males fought with a casualty rate of 68.5 percent.  Similar figures were true of the Second World War.”  In conflicts and in peacekeeping operations from Afghanistan to Bougainville to the former Yugoslavia, “you will find New Zealanders and Australians.”

In Defending New Zealand, Rolfe’s interpretation of New Zealand defense policy still rings true to Ambassador Moore’s explanation: the state’s defense interests are mainly concerned with the external environment.  On the one hand, this focus is “a reflection of the truism that a military threat, to the extent that one is perceived, could only come from overseas.”  On the other hand, New Zealand believes, as does the US, that using military force in neighboring regions “to assist in stability and security will in turn reinforce stability and security in the immediate region to the benefit of New Zealand’s ultimate security”. Because of the sacrifices made throughout history and its focus on international engagement, New Zealand policymakers understand that the country’s security cannot be solely determined within Oceania. (Rolfe, 1993: 3)

While New Zealand diplomats have historically punched above their weight and have been a strong progressive voice that at times caused tensions (especially with the issue of being nuclear-free), all democratic states should be keen to have New Zealand; the state is stable, outspoken and an active regional player of the Asia-Pacific.  Furthermore, the justifications for such outward foreign and defense policies should be lauded.  According to Rolfe, the internationalist outlook of New Zealand is recognition that, as a small state, if it wants to influence the world it must participate in the world.  “It argues that there are greater benefits to participation than there are costs, and what costs there are, are costs which any member of the international system should bear.” (Rolfe, 1993: 5)  For Ambassador Moore, “War is not inevitable but neither is peace….Patient, prudent, principled, predictable engagement at every level is the only golden rule.”



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