Foreign affairs, who cares?

6 Dec

As the election was nearing, Gordon Campbell rightly predicted that with the exception of the SAS in Afghanistan, foreign policy issues would not be dealt with during the election campaign. This was unsurprising; foreign policy issues have rarely been high on election campaign agendas for a variety of reasons most of which fall under the broader theme of supposed disinterest and apathy towards foreign affairs. This topic of voter apathy became particularly prominent following the election when it emerged that voter turnout had only reached 68%. Moving beyond the unhelpful rants that those who didn’t vote have no right to complain about the government, John Moore offered a more nuanced investigation of the voter turnout issue, arguing that:

“People’s boredom with politics can be easily dismissed as a sign of increasing levels of indifference and apathy shown towards societal concerns. However, boredom can also be seen as a legitimate response to what is in reality bland and indifferent politics. Would anyone for example seriously claim that either John Key or Phil Goff make politics exciting?

Mainstream politics no longer concerns itself with big questions around concerns such as inequality and poverty, and ‘How should society be run?’. Instead modern day politics has been reduced to electing the best managers to run national capitalist economies. The question of who should govern is then reduced down to who are the most qualified, the most trustworthy and the most likeable politicians to act as governmental technocrats. Serious discussion around policy and ideology is usually absent from modern political discourse. In light of such superficial politics, is it no wonder that so many potential voters switch off and see politics as boring.”

The bland, un-ideological approach that he talks about was evident within the discussion of foreign policy issues. Debate never moved beyond the narrow scope of which parties would plan to leave SAS troops in Afghanistan and which would withdraw them immediately. The “big questions” that John Moore talks about were largely absent, such as how the decision to maintain or remove SAS troops is bound up with broader ideas about the type of global society we want to be a part of, and how we will contribute.

John Key’s attempt to ensure even a hint of ideology was absent even from the discussion of the SAS was evident in how he dealt with the concern that developed over the SAS being in a combat role earlier this year. Through steadfastly refusing to admit that there was a significant combat component of the SAS’s role despite evidence mounting up otherwise, Key was able to avoid discussing what ideologies where underpinning his party’s decision to have troops engaged in war fighting. The focus on the mentoring role de-politicised the SAS’s role – and New Zealand’s whole engagement in the conflict – by making it seem like they are offering mere technical cooperation, in the same way that you would teach someone how to drive. Labour on the other hand campaigned on a promise of removing the SAS troops immediately, however their reasons for doing this never moved beyond the token one-liner about them not wanting to support Karzai’s corrupt regime. What this withdrawal of troops would have meant to their wider foreign policy remained unexplored. While the Green party has been a vocal critic of New Zealand’s engagement in the Afghanistan war, and broader international peace and security issues, this perspective was largely absent during this election as it sat outside of their green economy/rivers/child poverty focus.

Limiting the debate on foreign policy leaves out discussion of crucial issues such as international aid and development, the Transpacific Partnership on Trade and New Zealand’s relations with everywhere else except Afghanistan (see Paul Buchanan’s article for a more in depth discussion of these issues). But of particular concern to me is the effect it has on how we engage in efforts to promote global peace and security. Focusing attention solely on the activities of the SAS runs the risk of equating foreign policy with these narrow approaches to addressing conflict and insecurity, while other policy approaches get trapped in the dark corners of political party websites. How our armed forces are utilised is but one aspect of foreign policy, and it represents a largely reactive approach to addressing international insecurity in which troops are sent to mitigate conflicts that have generally already broken out. There are other methods such as more preventative approaches to conflict that can, and are, being utilized but that are not being discussed. Take the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) as an example. This international treaty that would regulate the sale of arms has significant potential to prevent armed conflict and violence. New Zealand has always played a role in global arms control and disarmament with our stance on nuclear weapons and prominent role in the Landmine Treaty and Convention on Cluster Munitions. However, not only has there been almost no discussion of the ATT within New Zealand, the New Zealand government hasn’t even sent delegates to all of the Preparatory Committees. If we were discussing the “big questions”, such as how we want the global system to be run, then this kind of behavior on the part of the New Zealand government would not be allowed to pass so easily.

A number of political parties have policies that promote a more preventive approach to global conflict and insecurity. The Green Party states a commitment to “explore ways in which governments and civil society can work together to detect, and prevent, impending conflict” and to “support the establishment of a conflict prevention unit, a mediation unit and a peacekeeping unit within both the UN Secretariat and the Pacific Islands Forum.” Labour also has a broader approach to addressing conflict: “we will also develop a specialist peace-building capability in the Asia-Pacific region, drawing on our extensive experience in mediation and conflict resolution in Bougainville, Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands”. Paul Buchanan has noted that New Zealand “has pretty much forsaken its role as a champion of international human rights, multilateral conflict resolution and ethical diplomacy”. The policies mentioned above, if debated and implemented, could be used to take back those roles.

There are a multitude of insecurities within the Pacific region that we could contribute to mitigating through adopting these broader approaches. The Indonesian province of West Papua is in a current state of crisis as Indonesian security forces continue to brutally suppress any attempts by West Papuans to pursue self-determination. Aware of New Zealand’s “extensive experience in mediation”, West Papuan leaders have requested on numerous occasions the assistance of the New Zealand Government in mediating a dialogue between themselves and the Indonesian Government on the topic of self-determination. While the Green Party and some members of the Labour Party have supported this, it has never come close to eventuating. Instead, the only assistance the New Zealand Government offers to West Papua is some ‘technical assistance’ in the form of community policing training. We need to think about what our goal is here. Do we want to try and contribute to addressing the underlying causes of the violence within West Papua, and contribute to the development of a more lasting peace? If so, is carrying out a police capacity building programme in isolation the best way to achieve this? We are only going to decide what type of approach we want to take here by tackling some of the “big questions” about what we want New Zealand’s international role to be. This will require politicians moving out of a ‘politicians as technocrats’ mindset because debating these issues stands outside of this narrowly defined role. Maybe when these types of broader societal issues are discussed by politicians people will start to feel that their vote actually contributes to improving society and be more inspired to vote.



One Response to “Foreign affairs, who cares?”


  1. A Good News Post « elevenhoursahead - December 21, 2011

    […] their decision over the disarmament portfolio, National shows little sign of doing the same. I wrote several weeks ago about the need for more public discussion around the direction of New Zealand’s […]

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