Winston Peters spent last week in Scandinavia as “part of a renewed diplomatic effort with Nordic countries”, visiting Denmark, Iceland, Finland and Norway. Of these, Norway is perhaps the country that most resembles NZ. We both have huge coastlines, many centuries of maritime heritage and navigational prowess and vast tracts of wild land and dramatic landscapes. Norway even once advertised its fjords in the London Underground with posters saying: “Norway: like New Zealand only closer.” We share an earnest outlook and slightly dark, quirky artistic tendencies. We also share an egalitarian streak and an instinct to take principled positions on international issues. Painfully, we have both had to confront horrific white nationalist massacres aimed at sparking conflict and division. Acknowledging this new bond, Peters laid a wreath on Wednesday at the memorial for the 2011 terrorist attack in Oslo and the island of Utoya.

Like New Zealand, Norway’s instinctive response to the hateful violence of 2011 was to face it with ever strengthened resolve for tolerance, openness and non-violence. The Nordics seem to have a calm, dignified, sensible approach to managing their countries. Norway in particular has been so sensible with managing the profits it has extracted from North Sea Oil and Gas that it has the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. That fund has now decided to end investment in fossil fuel extraction and the country itself has put a stop to drilling for oil in its Arctic territory

Of course, the oil and gas it has extracted – since hitting the hydrocarbon jackpot as a relatively poor fishing-based economy in the 1970s – has pumped massive clouds of heat-trapping gas into the atmosphere. It’s one of the richest countries on earth, supports whaling, exports weapons and is an increasingly staunch member of the nuclear-armed NATO alliance. So it’s not all peace and love.

Still, most Norwegians see it as normal that their country should take an active role in helping solve the great challenges facing humanity. Norway’s Nobel Committee hands out the Peace Prize every year as the ultimate arbiter of moral goodness. Norway plays an active role in conflict prevention and peace mediation. It’s one of the world’s largest humanitarian donors. It provides much-needed leadership on courageous diplomatic initiatives, playing leading roles in the efforts to eliminate landmines and cluster bombs.

Norway gets moral support from New Zealand, its friendly neighbour just a few doors down on the UN’s alphabetical seating plan. Yet we have a lot to learn from Norway when it comes to spearheading diplomatic initiatives. 

One of these initiatives should be conflict prevention, which Peters mentioned in his speech to the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs on Wednesday. New Zealanders have built up skills and experience in preventing conflicts, de-escalating tensions and restoring peace, particularly in the Pacific. The problem is that all this has been largely ad hoc, non-strategic and scattered across agencies like MFAT, NZDF, Police, non-government organisations and individuals. Officials know we’ve missed an opportunity to consolidate our experience and that we should do more to retain these skills.

Last October, New Zealand Alternative published a report recommending the government establish an independent conflict prevention unit to make sure we have a place to capture all the learning we do in this area. At the time Peters’ reaction was non-commital, but didn’t shut the idea down. He actually said: “we can always do more”. In what looks like a troubled world ahead, building up a capacity to help prevent and resolve conflict is a solid investment in the future. New Zealand and Norway are already cooperating in places like Colombia and Myanmar. This is a space where New Zealand can build on our past and current work and contribute meaningfully. It would be a wasteful error to leave it up to individual diplomats and one-off projects, however effective they may be.

Another area is to support Norway’s efforts to end marine plastic pollution, which is putting marine ecosystems at severe risk. With the world’s fourth largest marine estate, New Zealand has always been an energetic supporter of maritime law. We helped bring about the Convention on the Law of the Sea in the 1980s and have worked vigourously on marine protection in the Antarctic. There’s strong precedent for New Zealand to support new international law to prevent one of the greatest threats to marine biodiversity we have ever faced.

At the last United Nations Environment Assembly, held in Nairobi in March, Norway tabled a resolution to pave the way for negotiations on a treaty to stop marine plastic pollution. Norway managed to get a weakened resolution through, in the face of staunch US opposition, but it was a missed opportunity. These UN meetings happen only every two years and meanwhile the world is pumping 8 million tonnes of plastic waste into the sea every year at a cost to society of $2.5 trillion a year

New Zealand should be a leader on this topic. We’re a mega marine biodiversity hotspot and the seabird capital of the world. We’re experts in maritime law. Our people love the ocean and definitely support doing something about plastic waste. And we have a willing, well-resourced partner in Norway. Encouragingly, when asked in Oslo about supporting Norway’s efforts towards a treaty on nearing plastic pollution, Peters responded: “If you want to know what New Zealand’s position is: we’re in.”

Embedding conflict prevention as a national capacity for New Zealand and leading the way on preventing marine plastic pollution would be flagship achievements for any government. They would position New Zealand smartly in the world, playing to our strengths and building on what we already know and do well. Both initiatives are strongly in line with the Beehive’s stated ambition for this Nordic trip “to maintain bonds with countries which share our values for rules-based international order”.

New Zealand is not Norway and our economic and strategic situations are obviously distinct. But as small, opinionated countries working for a better world, we need to work together. The world desperately needs international cooperation, diplomatic ambition and transformational leadership. Our Foreign Minister should be returning from Norway with a renewed sense of responsibility for New Zealand to pull our weight in the world.

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