Evolution or revolution? Terence O’Brien

New Zealand in World Affairs: Vol. 3, 1972-1990 
ed Bruce Brown
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864733720


In his introduction to this third volume in the history of modern New Zealand international relations, covering 1972-1990, Merv Norrish suggests the period was one of “near revolution” for New Zealand external affairs. Malcolm McKinnon, in an insightful contribution, prefers to describe the experience, at least in key particulars, as an evolutionary one. Amongst the ten essays that constitute this volume, however, the revolutionary school of thought is in a majority.

The 18 years under scrutiny produced diverse experiences for the country – the New Zealand break with the United States; consolidation of New Zealand economic interests in the world by means of remorseless diplomacy in many places; construction of Closer Economic Relations with Australia; development of relations with Asia, especially Japan and China; the cancer of apartheid in the Commonwealth; the notable growth of public interest (now called civil society) in issues of New Zealand foreign relations.

It is tempting to try to pick out the most significant amongst all the events traversed here. For some contributors, the break with the United States over the non-nuclear policy clearly eclipses other developments. Malcolm McKinnon’s analytical treatment of the evolutions in New Zealand policy, and the realignments required as a consequence of the break, contains the most balanced account of its meaning domestically and implications internationally. It deftly attributes neither praise nor blame. Other contributors, who incline to the revolutionary view, are more avowedly partisan. This leads them, in places, to stretch arguments about perceived damage done to New Zealand beyond what the evidence will bear. Two examples are sufficient here.

Bruce Brown, in his contribution on New Zealand in the world economy, is at pains to register that British displeasure with New Zealand non-nuclearism diminished their advocacy for New Zealand interests in Europe. Yet the enactment of New Zealand non-nuclear policy occurred nearly fifteen years after British entry to Europe. By this time, New Zealand had long been obliged to rely principally upon its own efforts in Brussels and other European capitals, both to mitigate downward pressure upon its level of permitted agricultural exports, and “to manage” world dairy trade with the authorities in Brussels so that New Zealand’s diversification of markets was not adversely impacted by dumped European products. Interestingly, Bruce Brown does not mention this latter involvement, which was surely unique in New Zealand’s external economic experience, but he does seek to convey that even as late as 1988, New Zealand was continuing to rely upon British advocacy to a degree that was simply not the case. Mrs Thatcher had by then, as New Zealand clearly appreciated, entirely dedicated her government’s efforts to reducing Britain’s financial contribution to Europe.

In his chapter on the trans-Tasman connection, Stephen Hoadley is likewise unimpressed by the non-nuclear policy and its impacts on the Australian relationship. This leads him to suggest that hapless New Zealand owed the United States’ failure to impose trade sanctions to the lobbying of the Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, with Washington. For some people, the notion of Hawke lobbying seriously on New Zealand’s behalf about anything stretches credulity. Much evidence pointed in quite the opposite direction. Be that as it may, the real reason for American disavowal of trade sanctions was surely a clear, hard-headed judgement that it would not serve their interests to go that far.

Returning to the bigger picture, chapters by Ann Trotter and John McKinnon provide analysis of the way, with regard to Japan and to China, New Zealand shifted diplomatic focus as economic links in Asia-Pacific began the process of reshaping profoundly the balance of New Zealand global interest. At the same time, to reinforce the point that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, John Henderson’s chapter on the South Pacific illustrates the growing complexity of New Zealand relationships with that extensive neighbourhood. Indeed, given the tumult at the present time in several island countries, Henderson’s chapter repays reading, right now, as a description of how New Zealand has got to where it is.

John Henderson’s chapter is useful in another sense. As principal adviser to Prime Minister David Lange during the time of the 1987 Fiji coup, he rebuts categorically the story that New Zealand, along with Australia, contemplated military action against Fiji at that time. That story has been given some credence by subsequent claims both from the Fijian and from the New Zealand side. Henderson writes authoritatively on this episode and his account conforms with the recollections of the present reviewer, who was also implicated at the time in the New Zealand responses to the Fiji situation. The alternative view is portrayed, however, in the chapter by Ian McGibbon, who uses it as an illustration of the mutual lack of confidence between the Government and its military advisers at the time. The chapter ascribes responsibility for that state of affairs entirely to the Government, for whose nuclear and security policies McGibbon displays no sympathy. This chapter addresses issues of defence and reveals nostalgia for the comforts of alliance relationships. It infers that New Zealand today remains a free-rider on US-provided security. This is, of course, a book of history but there is a decidedly old-fashioned quality to the judgements and analysis here.


There are gaps in the coverage. The book does not address New Zealand relations with the Soviet Union bloc over the period in question, nor South East Asia, nor does it treat the role of New Zealand inside the United Nations. This last omission is the more evident when seen in the context of the chapter by David McIntyre devoted to the Commonwealth, which deals with the period when apartheid, sanctions, sporting contacts and Zimbabwe dominated attention. These were of course hot issues for New Zealand, and rightly command a place in such a volume. But consequential detail about multiple activities of the Commonwealth reinforces a sense of overall imbalance in the book’s coverage.

There is, however, a shortish contribution from Malcolm Templeton on specific developments in international law (on human rights, nuclear weapons and Law of the Sea) which compensates to some degree for the omissions. Some shrewd perceptions in this contribution whet the reader’s taste for more, reinforcing the desirability of treating the UN more fully in such a book.

In many respects, it is the last chapter about the public interaction with New Zealand foreign policy conduct, by Rod Alley, which captures the beginning of what is a most notable development for New Zealand in international affairs. It is not unique to this country, but its impacts are as real here as anywhere. The power of knowledge, ideas and communications technology is progressively democratising international relations. Their conduct is no longer the private preserve of a small elite – even in a small country. The chapter illustrates succinctly how public opinion (or civil society) began, over the period covered, to influence New Zealand policy and participation across a spectrum of foreign policy issues. Earlier individual chapters make the same point in several particulars, but the Alley chapter conveniently draws the strands together.

This trend is amplifying as civil society increasingly shapes, or seeks to shape, international agendas on human rights, environment, disarmament and free trade. The next volume in this series will doubtless need to treat this phenomenon in even more depth. Let us hope it also includes a chapter on New Zealand’s view of its place in the world. The present volume includes Bruce Brown’s contribution “New Zealand’s Place in the World Economy” but there is no comprehensive discussion of the New Zealand self-view in international affairs as the old century was drawing to an end. The view that because of its non-nuclear policy New Zealand “lost its way” in international affairs is, however, well represented amongst the contributions. It will be intriguing to see whether the next volume – whenever that appears – also includes contributions from the “New Zealand lost” school of thought; or, in other words, whether events after 1990 confirm how right this school proved to be, or simply how wrong.


Terence O’Brien is a commentator on international affairs.


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