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The border may be closed, but NZ ignores its place in the world at its peril

Our early success against Covid-19 was lauded the world over. If we want to continue to provide leadership, we need to reinvigorate our approach to foreign affairs, writes Nina Hall.

With our borders largely closed, you could be forgiven for thinking that international affairs should take a back seat for a few months. But New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is, whether we like it or not, connected to the world beyond us. Our initial, effective response drew global attention, and what we do now both domestically and internationally will continue to garner coverage around the world.

The Covid-19 crisis highlights the need for deep reflection on New Zealand’s role in the world. Our earlier success at eliminating the virus has been widely applauded by the World Health Organisation (WHO), so will New Zealand continue to provide leadership during this difficult time, and if so, how? And who can we now trust and ally with internationally? After all, some of our traditional partners – such as the UK and the US – failed to grasp the severity of the crisis and have been among the worst hit by Covid-19. 

New Zealand’s future is intricately linked to the wellbeing of the world. We ignore what is happening overseas, and our role in it, at our peril. Our economy was hit badly during the Global Financial Crisis and again by the pandemic. Our oceans, climate and ozone layer are dramatically affected by what other people do elsewhere (as well as by what we do in Aotearoa). And the Christchurch white supremacist attacker was well-connected to right-wing extremists in Europe. 

For all this, we rarely debate what issues political parties should tackle or prioritise on the global stage even during the lead-up to an election. As political parties release policies, we should pay closer attention to what they promise on foreign affairs, defence and trade. And we should also listen to a diverse range of commentators and perspectives on New Zealand’s role in the world. Foreign policy debates here, and around the world, need to move beyond the domain of white, urban, middle-class bureaucrats, and instead reflect the diversity that is such an important part of our identity. 

Under the international spotlight, what can New Zealand do to reinvigorate our approach to international affairs? A diverse group of New Zealanders, who are rarely quoted in foreign policy debates, have put forward some bold ideas in Beyond These Shores, a book I edited that was published earlier this month.

One key theme is that Māori must be partners in foreign policy decision-making, not merely consulted as stakeholders as has occurred in the past. This will require rethinking of how we negotiate international agreements, and with whom we forge international alliances, alongside a broader process of constitutional transformation

New Zealand should also reconsider old, traditional alliances. After all, neither Donald Trump nor Boris Johnson demonstrated international leadership during the Covid crisis. New Zealand demographics, society and culture are changing, and we should question the merits of staying in the Five Eyes alliance

Meanwhile, our relationship with China has entered tricky waters. China is our biggest trading partner, yet New Zealand should be wary of Xi Jinping’s increasingly authoritarian control. Chinese-born New Zealander Zeng Dazheng argues in Beyond These Shores that we shouldn’t take sides between the US and Chinese governments, but rather focus on solidarity with Chinese nationals (and those in Hong Kong) who are losing out due to growing income inequality, and increasing Han nationalism.

And New Zealand can be a better global citizen. We must curb our carbon emissions, and put pressure on Australia to do the same. As Tulia Thompson notes, “Australia is our most important partner, but it is also our closest major polluter”.  This is critical for Pacific Island states that are battling rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change. 

New Zealand should also admit to the harms caused by our imperialism, resource extraction and what Tina Ngata calls waste colonisation – exporting our waste to poor countries and then turning our backs on the subsequent environmental devastation in these regions. Instead, Ngata suggests, meetings about climate change and pollution in the Pacific should be “accessible, affordable and appropriate for Pacific peoples and Indigenous peoples at large”.

There are many other ideas that New Zealand should consider. These include: setting up an independent conflict prevention unit, pursuing a global treaty to phase out fossil fuels worldwide, providing leadership towards a post-GDP economic framework, leading the way on a global agreement for businesses to respect human rights, changing our corporate governance model, and ensuring our defence and police deployments overseas are accountable to those who need their protection. These are a handful of suggestions, but what’s important is that more space is given to debate of this kind, not just among politicians but also the public.

It is right that the government focuses on Covid-19 recovery in the months ahead, but a full recovery requires engaging with the world. While our borders might be largely closed, we have to keep doors to international engagement open. That will require strong participation of the general public, and engagement with a diverse range of ideas outside of the foreign policy establishment. 

Nina Hall is an assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins SAIS Europe and is based in Bologna. She is editor of the BWB Text, Beyond These Shores, Aotearoa and the World. She is also a co-founding member of New Zealand Alternative. Thanks to Max Harris for his comments.




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