The fallout from Great Power tensions and war in Ukraine have led some to question whether New Zealand is abandoning its ‘independent foreign policy’. But independence doesn’t mean shying away from the day’s most pressing challenges, Sam Sachdeva writes.

After more than three months of on-and-off international travel, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern could be forgiven for seeking to turn her focus more fully towards the domestic front.

Ardern has traversed eight countries across three different continents as part of work to reconnect New Zealand to the world – but with the next election creeping ever closer, reconnecting Labour to the voters who have drifted away after its 2020 landslide win will take on added importance.

Foreign policy has rarely had a meaningful influence on elections in Aotearoa, perhaps as a result of our geographic isolation.

But it is tempting to wonder whether that could change come 2023, with debate over New Zealand’s role in the world as high as at any point in recent memory. 

In particular, the concept of our “independent foreign policy” and perceived threats to it have dominated large parts of the coverage around Ardern’s overseas trips, with the Prime Minister herself confronting the issue head on at points.

At one level, talk of independent foreign policy feels like a tautology: doesn’t every sovereign nation dictate how it charts its own course on the world stage?

But the phrase can perhaps be better understood as a move away from the sentiment expressed by Michael Joseph Savage during World War II: “Where Britain goes, we go; where Britain stands, we stand.”

We have long since stopped relying on the UK for protection, and successive governments have walked the tightrope between superpowers vying for influence and keen to enlist Aotearoa into their cause.

A treacherous tightrope

But that walk has become increasingly treacherous in recent years, as competition between the United States and China has threatened to turn into outright conflict.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided additional complexity, with unequivocal anger at the toll of Vladimir Putin’s war mixed with uncertainty about Beijing’s position on Moscow and the potential for alarming escalation.

Speaking to the Lowy Institute in Sydney earlier this month, Ardern was at pains to emphasise the war was one waged by Russia, and not others.

“While there are those who have shown overt and direct support, such as Belarus, who must also see consequences for their role, let us not otherwise characterise this as a war of the West versus Russia, or democracy versus autocracy.”

That led some to raise an eyebrow, given Putin’s autocratic approach. Concerns about Ukrainian democracy are cited by some as the underlying reasons for the invasion.

“Since Putin fears democracy and the threat that it poses to his regime and not expanded Nato membership, taking the latter off the table will not quell his insecurity. His declared goal of the invasion, the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine, is a code for his real aim: antidemocratic regime change,” American academics Robert Person and Michael McFaul wrote in an April piece for the Journal of Democracy.

Seen in the light of US-China competition, however, Ardern’s comments may be more about reassuring Beijing it will not be forced into a new ‘axis of evil’ alongside Moscow.

Yet the Prime Minister has also shown she is willing to call out China’s challenges to the international rules-based order, as she did at the Nato summit in Madrid.

“We are fiercely independent but we also look outwards. We actively seek relationships with those who share our values, whilst never losing sight of the importance of dialogue with those who don’t.”
– Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister

Addressing the Chatham House in London at the start of the month, Ardern said like-minded nations needed “to pull, on our own terms, in the same direction”.

“We are fiercely independent but we also look outwards. We actively seek relationships with those who share our values, whilst never losing sight of the importance of dialogue with those who don’t.”

Those principles, she said, “should not be confused with a desire for isolation” – a repudiation of the idea that independence means sitting on the sidelines and waiting for the ripple effects of others’ actions to hit us.

That emphasis on values has been a part of Ardern’s foreign policy outlook since she first came to power, and helps explain why her Government holds concerns about China and its rejection of fundamental principles related to liberal democracy and the rule of law.

It is not yet clear how Christopher Luxon feels about some of these issues, the National leader having so far stuck to fairly superficial assessments of the Government’s position (understandably so from a political perspective, given the easier terrain offered up by the cost of living crisis).

But the reaction to Don Brash’s notorious “gone by lunchtime” comments about the nuclear-free policy in the lead-up to the 2005 election shows Kiwis can be protective about the country’s independence.

Neither Luxon nor Ardern is likely to offer a similar olive branch to the US, and the international environment is much more volatile now than it was in the mid-2000s, providing an added incentive for bipartisanship.

Yet even as the Prime Minister replaces international air miles for domestic road trips, the realities of geopolitics could yet intrude on the campaign trail.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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