NZ Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Kim Jung Un, and Prime Minister of New Zealand, Bill English

Foreign policy: the elephant in the room in this year’s election

Faced with an increasingly hostile regional environment, the leaders of New Zealand’s two largest political parties seem complacent about the security issues plaguing the Asia-Pacific, writes Matthew Nicoll.

With just over two and a half weeks left in the election campaign period, New Zealanders have been subject to a near-constant flow of policy announcements and promises from both major political parties.

Housing, tax and fiscal policy, education, poverty and now, abortion – the policy proposals are coming in thick and fast. It appears as if Bill English and Jacinda Ardern have developed positions on all the major issues facing New Zealand.

Yet appearances can be deceiving, especially in politics. For all the policy announcements and (relatively) substantive debates so far, both candidates have neglected to provide real policy on issues critical to our country’s future.

Unlike the issues dominating the campaign trail, these issues are not internal; they are external. For the first time in recent history, New Zealand finds itself in a security environment that is becoming increasingly active, and all the more challenging. The examples are many – a looming North Korean nuclear crisis; an increasingly powerful and assertive China; and the changing dynamics of U.S. global leadership – to name a few.

Such examples provide stark evidence that the area in which New Zealand resides – the Asia Pacific region – is quickly becoming the new epicentre of geopolitical competition. The region can no longer be considered “strategically benign”, as Prime Minister Helen Clark asserted in 2001.

However, other than some vague assessments of President Trump’s tweets regarding North Korea, neither candidate seems to have any sort of developed position on Asia-Pacific security matters. A cursory glance at the policy sections of the National and Labour Party websites confirms this. While National doesn’t even provide a category for foreign policy, Labour lists some sketchy details about our ‘place in the world’.

This is because neither party has a foreign policy for the Asia-Pacific. It is, to quote an old idiom, the elephant in the room.

NZ Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jung Un, and Prime Minister of New Zealand, Bill English. Photos of Ardern and English: Michael Bradley © Supplied by Newshub

Academics, policy-makers and practitioners agree that foreign policy is the bridge between means and ends. But neither English nor Ardern have put together both sides of this equation. Pundits talk a lot about Ardern having the vision, but not the experience; she knows what the ends are, but not the means. English, on the other hand, has the experience, but no clear vision; he knows the means, not the ends.

Take Monday night’s debate: when asked whether they believed that the Trump presidency has made the world a more dangerous place, Ardern’s answer focused on differing personal values and the feeling that the world is more dangerous, urging restraint and multilateralism. English, however, zeroed in on one presently pressing aspect – North Korea – while ignoring the broader implications of Trump’s presidency and focusing on New Zealand’s ‘interests’.

This paints a telling picture of the contrasting inadequacies of the two candidates. Ardern seems to have an idea of the end (a nuclear-free North Korea), but the means she proposes – working through the U.N. – demonstrate naiveté: it is unrealistic to assume that China and Russia would not veto the use of force as they have in Syria. English alluded to the role that New Zealand’s interests would play in the (somewhat extreme) ‘war’ hypothetical that’s on everyone’s minds. Here, English knows exactly how he will respond (seeking a mandate), but downplays the implications of joining a Coalition of the Willing.

Underlying this issue is another footprint of the elephant in the room: China. Much like that of North Korea, neither candidate seems to have articulated any policy regarding New Zealand’s future strategic relationship with the other major power in the region.

Granted, both candidates clearly grasp the importance of New Zealand’s economic relationship with China. However, neither is willing to face the big strategic question at hand of how to effectively manage New Zealand’s relationships with both Beijing and Washington. As Strategic Studies professor Robert Ayson points out, the more the two major powers get on, the better it will be for New Zealand. But as tensions continue to rise around the South China Sea and North Korea, it is likely that Wellington will face more and more competing pressures from two of its major partners in the region.

It will be up to the future prime minister to face the security issues plaguing the Asia-Pacific head-on. But after weeks of campaigning, it seems as if the candidates vying for the position have forgotten that it requires effective leadership on both internal and external issues.

Now, perhaps more than ever, this leadership is needed. Our future depends on it.

Matthew Nicoll holds a Master of Strategic Studies from Victoria University, receiving the Prime Minister’s Award for Top Graduate in 2017. He is currently on a Royal Society Marsden scholarship for a Master of Arts, focusing on Intelligence Processing in NZ.

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