Is it in New Zealanders to be neutral?

New Zealand foreign policy neutrality Frank Corner

In July 1953 Frank Corner, then External Affairs Officer at our High Commission in London, sent a long letter to Alister McIntosh, head of External Affairs in Wellington. At that time New Zealand was in the process of adjusting to changing centres of power and the changing reality of our own place in the world as we turned, slightly, away from Britain. We had to reassess the capabilities we would need, where limited money should best be spent to advance core security interests, and how we could best lean on the resources of other countries as we faced the reality that Britain could not be relied upon for defence in the Pacific.

“I take it for granted that we shall make a commitment somewhere. Realistically speaking we have no need to do so. No country is less likely than New Zealand to be attacked; we are protected by enormous stretches of water, by our unimportance, by the naval weakness of Russia and the Asian powers and by the fact that Russia’s naval force must in war be in great demand in European waters; and, above all we are protected by the fact that no power could invade New Zealand without first defeating the sea power of the United States. Our geographical position suggests a policy of neutrality, and such a policy might increase our security, since it is only our belligerency which is likely to cause a foreign power to think of attacking us… It would not be impossible for New Zealand to follow a policy of neutrality and it could be argued that we would be more secure if we did so. Certainly more attention would be paid to us if we were not, as now, taken for granted. But this is irrelevant talk. It is not in New Zealanders to be neutral, and it is inconceivable that we could stand aside, like India, when the West is threatened by the Soviet Union… And though our division would hardly swing the balance it does seem important that we should consciously link our fate with that of Britain and Western Europe and fight to defend it. We can take it for granted that we are going to make a commitment; the only question is as to the area in which we can best do so.”

Today we find our foreign policy contortions risk becoming permanent injuries. We want an “independent” foreign policy, but we won’t criticise Trump nor investigate Chinese steel dumping. We want an American defence umbrella but would not, until recently, have any of its ships visit, and now will only take those that are least capable of defence. (We smell the uranium on their breath but spray some strong cologne and comment on the notes of Hawaiian frangipani). We wanted a democratic Pacific, but in criticising Fiji only left a vacuum. We want to grow trade with China, but thereby increase our dependence and frustrate our allies by our eagerness.

“The present period of indecision”, Corner wrote in that same 1953 letter, “gives us the chance to look again at this question of our commitment, probably the most important policy question facing us… I find this whole problem extremely complex, as it must be, because we are not free agents and because our history and civilisation and interests are hard to reconcile with our geography.” 

Our history and civilisation and interests are still hard to reconcile with our geography: this is the premise of New Zealand foreign policy. But with Britain turning her back on the world, Trump stabbing everyone’s, and the Chinese not letting on whether or not they hold a knife, now is the time to think seriously and broadly about our present period of indecision.