Winston Peters at the 51st Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore, August. Photo: MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

Why it’s time to push NZ foreign policy thinking out of the comfort zone

New Zealand Alternative – a new, open organisation – seeks to challenge the orthodoxy, starting with a call to establish an independent Conflict Prevention Unit. Co-founder Thomas Nash explains

Marking 100 years since the guns fell silent at the end of World War One, Foreign Minister Winston Peters represented New Zealand at the Paris Peace Forum yesterday. Peters joined 60 other world leaders attending the Armistice Day Centenary hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and is staying on for a global peace summit aimed at shoring up the modern architecture of global governance largely set up after World War Two. Despite his country playing a defining role in constructing that system of international cooperation, US President Donald Trump skipped the Paris Peace Forum (and also cancelled a trip to Aisne Marne American Cemetery, apparently because of bad weather).

We should be clear-eyed about the real divide between leaders that see global institutions as the key to peace and prosperity and nationalist world leaders retreating from them (see President Trump, Bolsonaro in Brazil and, yes, the whole Brexit fiasco). After the UN General Assembly in September, the Guardian selected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as the counterpoint to Trump in this geopolitical contrast, so it’s important that New Zealand has sent high level representation to this summit on peaceful global cooperation. Our country has been a diligent supporter of international cooperation ever since our Ministry of Foreign Affairs was established 75 years ago (they are also having anniversary celebrations at the moment). In 1945, New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser spent several weeks negotiating the United Nations Charter in San Francisco – apparently Fraser was very good at chairing meetings, something we can all probably appreciate. Since then, as one of the 51 founding members of the United Nations, New Zealand has staunchly defended international rules, peaceful cooperation and solving problems through multilateral diplomacy.

As well as promoting this international rules based order, our leaders also embrace the importance of an “independent foreign policy”. This particular claim, however, is never really subject to public scrutiny. Conversations about Aotearoa New Zealand and the world tend to be dominated by a small group of people focused on a narrow range of subject areas. Topics like trade policy, alliances and security, and intelligence and defence, are more or less tucked safely away from mainstream critical debate with dissenting voices sidelined from discussion.

That’s why a group of us have established New Zealand Alternative – a new, open organisation that seeks to challenge the orthodoxy and widen the group of people taking part in the foreign policy conversation. The organisation will publish research and policy papers and build conversation through events and community hui to help shape a truly independent, values-driven foreign policy for New Zealand.

Our first publication, launched last month on United Nations Day, calls for New Zealand to step up its contributions to global conflict prevention and peace mediation. After speaking with experts in New Zealand and overseas, we discerned a strong appetite for New Zealand to enhance its role in preventing conflict and promoting peace. New Zealand’s own relationship with peace and conflict provides a compelling reason to stand proudly as a nation of peace – from the role of Parihaka as a world leader in strategic non-violence, to our role setting up the United Nations in 1945, through to our nuclear-free movement, our successful peace mediation work in Bougainville in the 1990s and our principled opposition to the illegal war in Iraq in 2003.

Looking at this pedigree, our paper recommends that the government establish an independent Conflict Prevention Unit to build up New Zealand’s capacity to contribute to international peace mediation and conflict prevention efforts. The Unit could train diplomats, monitor areas of tension and conflict, host under the radar dialogues or more formal peace talks, and deploy specialists in elections, coalition negotiations, management of natural resources. It would work closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other relevant agencies and organisations. We costed out a budget of $1.1m per year and a timeline for the Unit to be up and running by June 2020.

We issued this report after an invitation issued by the Foreign Minister in June for foreign policy thinkers to challenge orthodox analysis with fresh ideas. In his reaction to our proposal, Peters emphasised the good work New Zealand is already doing on conflict prevention and noted, “We can always do more, but you’ve got to persuade the constituency out there and the parliamentarians in there and the Minister of Finance to give me more money to do a better job out there – I can’t do it without money.”

The additional funding required is a worthwhile investment that should have support across the political spectrum. Our research shows an ambition towards peace mediation that successive New Zealand governments have been keen to pursue, but have not quite managed to implement. This report aims to rekindle that bipartisan ambition for New Zealand to play a sustained role as a responsible and sophisticated contributor to international peace and security, beyond the provision of military force. Looking around at the prospects for peace internationally, New Zealand’s contributions are sorely needed.

Of course, New Zealand cannot itself claim to have achieved complete peace in the history of relations between Māori and the Crown and we recognise that as New Zealand advocates for peace internationally there is an ongoing struggle for justice and indigenous rights at home.

Independent foreign policy requires taking risks and pursuing initiatives that push us out of our comfort zone. With careful consideration of our own contested history as a country, we propose the Conflict Prevention Unit as one such foreign policy initiative. In the same way as our nuclear-free status has become emblematic of our international identity, an independent Conflict Prevention Unit could become a flagship pillar of a truly independent New Zealand foreign policy. If the Peace Forum in Paris becomes an annual event, we hope New Zealand can attend next year’s version with an announcement that we will be stepping up our contributions to peace with a concrete policy initiative such as this.

Thomas Nash is Adjunct Lecturer in Politics at Massey University, Director of New Zealand Alternative and a co-founder of the organisation alongside Nina Hall, Max Harris and Laura O’Connell Rapira.


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