New Zealand’s foreign policy under National and Labour governments: Variations on the “small state” theme?

New Zealand’s foreign policy under National and Labour governments: Variations on the “small state” theme?

McCraw, David J

Small States are alleged to have a distinct set of foreign policy characteristics, although the utility of the small state concept in international relations has been challenged.(1) If New Zealand’s foreign policies have indeed been generally characteristic of those of small states, those policy characteristics have nevertheless been affected by the political colour of the government in power. Recent National and Labour governments have differed in the scope of their foreign policies; in the importance which they have given to cooperation with allies; in the degree to which their foreign policies have espoused moral causes, and in the extent to which economic interests have taken priority in their foreign policies. The two types of government have not differed much, however, in their participation in world affairs, or in their propensity to become involved in conflict with other powers.

Although there is no generally accepted definition of a small state, a population size of under ten million has recently been proposed as the most important criterion.(2) New Zealand, with a population of 3.4 million, would easily qualify under this definition, although it is not particularly small in either land area or in gross national product.

There are five characteristics of small state foreign policy behaviour which are generally agreed upon and one which is controversial. The five agreed-upon characteristics were summarized recently as: a low level of participation in world affairs; a narrow foreign policy scope; an economic focus in foreign policy execution; an emphasis on internationalism, involving participation in international and regional organizations, and finally, a moral emphasis in foreign policy, with a high level of support for international legal norms.(3) The sixth characteristic, about which there is disagreement, is that small states avoid behaviour that alienates more powerful states.

New Zealand has two major political parties, National and Labour, which have alternated in government. They differ somewhat in their approaches to foreign affairs because of the different values they emphasize. The Labour party, founded by the trade unions and originally dedicated to advancing socialist principles, is a party of reform. It is concerned mainly with promoting social justice in New Zealand, and it seeks to advance this ideal, and other humanitarian concerns, internationally as well. The party is antimilitarist and sympathetic to the aspirations of the developing countries. The National party, rooted in the farming and business communities, is a conservative party, interested in promoting free enterprise and protecting individual freedom. Its international outlook is focused on New Zealand’s basic national interests of trade and security. The National Party values close links with New Zealand’s traditional friends in the western democracies.


The limited resources possessed by small states are alleged to permit only a low level of participation in world affairs. As far as New Zealand is concerned, however, it has been claimed that “even a preliminary assessment does not support the proposition of low participation in world affairs.”(4) This may well be so, but the suggested characteristics of small state behaviour are relative to the behaviour of larger countries and are not absolute. New Zealand need not have a low participation in world affairs to fit the model, but just a lower participation than that of a big state.

New Zealand has certainly participated in a large number of overseas military conflicts this century, as has been noted.(5) It took part in the Boer War, the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia, and the Vietnam War. Under recent governments, New Zealand has kept up its tradition of sending military personnel abroad, although now mainly in the peace-keeping role. There has not been a great deal of difference between National and Labour governments in their willingness to do this, although National governments have been more willing to operate outside the United Nations context.

The Muldoon National government (1975-1984) sent troops to Zimbabwe in 1980 as part of a Commonwealth force monitoring compliance with the cease-fire between the Rhodesian security forces and the Patriotic Front guerillas. The following year the same government agreed to contribute troops to a multinational force in the Sinai to keep the peace between Egypt and Israel. This force was organized by the United States. Then in 1982 the National government assisted Britain’s military effort in the Falklands war by making a New Zealand frigate available to Britain in the Indian Ocean as a replacement for a British ship sent to the Falklands. Finally, in 1983, the National government indicated that it would be prepared to contribute to a Commonwealth peace-keeping force in Grenada after the American intervention there.(6) This peace force, however, did not eventuate.

The Labour government which followed (1984-1990), advised the United Nations that New Zealand was prepared to increase its commitment of personnel to the peace-keeping operations of the United Nations.(7) In 1988, New Zealand contributed twenty-eight military personnel to the United Nations force monitoring the cease-fire between Iran and Iraq. The next year, the Labour government sent fourteen army engineers and thirty-two police officers to Namibia to participate in the implementation of the United Nations — supervised plan for the independence of that country. Five servicemen were also sent to Pakistan to take part in a United Nations programme of training Afghanis in mine-clearing techniques. During the Gulf crisis in 1990, the air force made thirteen mercy flights into the region to transport refugees to various Asian countries. The Labour government, however, was reluctant to make a military contribution to the United States-led forces in the Gulf, although in October it indicated privately to the allies that New Zealand would send transport or surveillance aircraft if the United Nations requested it.(8) Labour made it clear that it preferred any military response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait to be under United Nations, rather than United States, control.

With the return of a National government to power in 1990, New Zealand’s participation in peace-keeping and peace-making activity increased. One of the Bolger government’s first acts was to announce a New Zealand contribution to the allied military force preparing to recover Kuwait from Iraq. What the New Zealand forces contributed, however, were medical and transport units rather than combat ones. In its first two years in office, the National government contributed troops to four United Nations peace-keeping forces (in Angola, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, and Somalia). Soon after taking office, the National government announced that it would campaign for a seat for New Zealand on the United Nations Security Council, and this was duly achieved in October 1992. The Minister of External Relations and Trade noted shortly afterwards that as the United Nations moved towards peacemaking rather than peace-keeping activities, New Zealand defense force personnel would face greater risks, since “we intend to participate, rather than cheering or criticizing others in the international community from the sidelines.”(9)

Another possible indicator of the degree of a country’s participation in world affairs is the level of overseas aid given. In this area, New Zealand’s participation has been low compared with most other developed countries, big or small, but Labour governments have been more committed to raising New Zealand’s contribution than National ones. In 1964, the United Nations set countries a target for aid contributions of one percent of their gross national product, with 0.7 percent of GNP having to be official government aid. During the 1960s, under a National government, New Zealand’s aid remained a long way below target level, being at 0.28 percent of GNP when National went out of office in 1972. The Kirk Labour government which followed (1972-75), however, made a determined effort to increase substantially the proportion of the Gross National Product given in aid. In each of its three years in power there was an increase in the percentage of the GNP given in aid, despite worsening economic circumstances after 1973. The final allocation of the Labour government represented 0.55 percent of the gross national product.(10)

The succeeding Muldoon National government allowed the percentage of GNP given in aid to drop again, with its final allocation in 1984 reaching a new low of 0.25 percent.(11) The following year, New Zealand was chided by the Development Aid Committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development for having let the level of its aid slip well behind the levels of most other members. Only two members of the OECD had lower levels: the United States and Ireland.(12)

The next Labour government, under David Lange, echoed its Labour predecessor by announcing an intention of quickly reaching a higher level of aid. In 1986, the Cabinet adopted an intermediate target for official aid disbursements of 0.5 percent of GNP by 1990-91. Consistent with reaching this target, the amount of aid allocated for the 1986-87 year represented a rise to 0.30 percent of the GNP.(13) However, in the years following, the percentage dropped back again. By 1990, New Zealand’s official aid as measured by the OECD was at a new low of 0.22 percent. This was much lower than Australia’s 0.34 percent, although still just higher than the United States’ level of 0.21 percent.(14)

The Bolger National government cut New Zealand’s foreign aid allocation in each of its first two years in office. The allocation for the 1992-93 year was thought to represent about 0.21 percent of GNP.(15)

In the two measures of participation in world affairs which have been considered, National governments have been more ready than Labour ones to participate in international military operations overseas, but Labour governments have been more committed than National ones to reaching the United Nations target for foreign aid.


It has been suggested that small states, because of their limited resources, will restrict the scope of their foreign policy concerns to regional issues or matters of direct concern. Once again, this characteristic does not seem to be very applicable to New Zealand at first glance. As a global trading nation, New Zealand’s interests are widespread geographically: Europe, the Middle East; North America and East Asia are all important markets. Only one of New Zealand’s major trading partners is a neighbouring or regional state: Australia. Nevertheless, despite the fact that New Zealand has vital interests beyond its own region, New Zealand’s foreign policy scope is limited compared with, say, Australia. As East says of the small state, “Certain functional and geographic areas must be emphasized, while others are ignored.”(16) In New Zealand’s case, the main function of its diplomatic posts is the promotion of trade, and attention is focused on those areas which have trade importance for the country. Currently, for instance, New Zealand has only one diplomatic post on the entire African continent, and only one on the South American continent, and this reflects the trade importance of those regions to New Zealand. By way of contrast, New Zealand has ten posts in Europe, three in the Middle East, ten in the rest of Asia, and five in North America. Australia has eight posts in Africa and five in South America, although its pattern of representation, like New Zealand’s, is heavily weighted towards Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific.(17)

New Zealand does have a special interest in its own South Pacific region, which is not related to trade. New Zealand’s concern for the well-being of its smaller island neighbours, some of whom it has defence responsibilities for, is reflected in the fact that a quarter of New Zealand’s diplomatic posts are located in the region.

There have been notable differences between New Zealand governments in the scope of their foreign policies. Labour governments have, on the whole, tended to widen the scope of New Zealand’s foreign policy activity, whereas National governments have tended to narrow it. Under recent National governments, the opening of diplomatic posts has been related almost exclusively to the trade potential of the countries concerned, whereas Labour governments have been as interested in broadening New Zealand’s political contacts. An early indicator of this tendency was the First Labour government’s opening of a diplomatic post in the Soviet Union in 1944 in order “to establish a more friendly relationship” with a war-time ally.(18) At the time, New Zealand had only four other posts, three in Commonwealth countries and one in the United States. The National party opposition opposed the opening of the Moscow post, and when National came to power in 1949, it closed the post down.

During the 1950s, a National government established several posts in Southeast Asia as New Zealand became involved in the security of the region, and in the 1960s, another National government opened several posts in the European Community nations as New Zealand sought to retain access for its products to Europe.

When the Kirk Labour government came to power in 1972, it signalled its intention of widening the scope of New Zealand’s representation by one of its first acts, the diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China. An embassy was later opened in Peking. New Zealand’s first ambassador to China has written that trade was not the main reason for Kirk’s action: “it was hardly even a secondary consideration at the time.”(19) Kirk’s successor, Rowling, has confirmed this.(20) The Kirk government went on to reopen the New Zealand embassy in Moscow, and in its three years in office it lifted the number of New Zealand’s overseas posts from thirty to forty-five.

In contrast, the following Muldoon National government increased New Zealand’s total of overseas posts by only one in over eight years. Most notably, it narrowed the political scope of New Zealand’s overseas network by closing down the post in India, citing financial stringency.(21) At the same time, however, the National government established new posts in Mexico and Saudi Arabia. These moves were determined by the relative trade advantages each post was thought to offer.

The fourth Labour government, which came to power in 1984, again showed an interest in broadening New Zealand’s political contacts. In 1985 it opened New Zealand’s first diplomatic post in Africa as a signal of its desire to be in touch with the aspirations of the countries of that continent. There had hitherto been no New Zealand post in Africa because Africa had been judged to have little trade potential for New Zealand. Indeed, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had advised the previous National government in June 1984 that an African post was neither needed nor justified.(22) The Labour government decided that politics rather than trade would justify an embassy in Zimbabwe. In April 1985 Prime Minister Lange underlined Labour’s interest in Africa by making the first official visit by a New Zealand prime minister to sub-Saharan Africa, saying that New Zealand had neglected relationships with Africa for too long.(23) Lange later wrote that the new complexities of New Zealand’s foreign relations imposed a requirement that New Zealand “should reach out beyond our immediate neighbourhood and our traditional friendships.”(24)

Another indication of Labour’s interest in extending the scope of New Zealand’s foreign policies was its reopening of New Zealand’s High Commission in India. The prime minister said that National’s decision to close the post had led to New Zealand’s isolation from one of the most populous countries in the world, a leader of the nonaligned movement and a preeminent advocate for Third World interests. Over time, New Zealand would restore its relationship with India, and “through India, with many emerging countries of the Third World.”(25)

During the Labour government’s second term, however, it began to cut back New Zealand’s overseas network for financial reasons, closing the embassies in Peru and Bahrain. The Labour government also extended the geographic spread of New Zealand’s foreign aid by reestablishing an aid programme for Africa, reestablishing an aid programme for India, and launching a modest assistance programme in China. This reversed the tendency of the previous National government to reduce the spread of New Zealand’s aid projects and focus them on first, the South Pacific, and second, on the ASEAN area.(26) The National government’s policy of concentration on two neighbouring regions was fully in accord with the small state model, whereas Labour’s spreading out ran counter to it. However, despite the extraregional projects, the overwhelming proportion of New Zealand’s bilateral aid continued to go to the South Pacific, and thus New Zealand under Labour remained true to the small state model.

Under the Bolger National government, changes in New Zealand’s network of overseas posts again reflected trade rather than political interests. New Zealand’s embassies in Greece and Austria were closed, while new posts were opened in Spain and Turkey, and a second post opened in Germany.


There is wide agreement in the international relations literature that small states give priority to economic issues in determining their foreign policy.(27) It is certainly true that all New Zealand governments, whatever their political colour, have been forced to give economic goals very great importance because New Zealand’s prosperity is heavily dependent on trade. New Zealand is more heavily dependent on trade than many bigger states and therefore may be more likely than they are to give economic issues priority in its foreign policy. Despite New Zealand’s dependence on trade, occasional differences have occurred between National and Labour governments in the priority they have given to economic goals in their foreign policies.

The Muldoon National government was quite explicit that economic goals had the highest priority in its foreign policy, whereas the previous Labour government had articulated other priorities.(28) Prime Minister Muldoon probably overstated his government’s outlook when he said in 1980: “Our foreign policy is trade. We are not interested in the normal foreign policy matters to any great extent, we are interested in trade.”(29) Nevertheless, the priority was made evident the same year when New Zealand’s main ally, the United States, called for an embargo on trade with Iran after Iran had taken staff hostage from the American embassy in Iran. New Zealand was unwilling to support such an embargo.(30)

Another indicator of the priority given to economic concerns came in 1983 when the National government was challenged by the Labour opposition to mount stronger opposition to French nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific. The Minister of Foreign Affairs told Parliament that the price of a strong and continuous pressure on France could be a discontinuation of New Zealand’s access for its products into Europe, and that he wondered if a Labour government would be prepared to pay that price.(31)

Labour governments have always seen New Zealand’s foreign policy as being about more than trade. It is indicative of this that the Lange Labour government’s most spectacular foreign policy initiative, the banning of nuclear weapons-carrying vessels from New Zealand ports, was concerned with promoting disarmament. Indeed, this policy, which led to a major rift with the United States, contradicted the alleged tendency of small countries to give economic factors primacy in their foreign policy. Under previous New Zealand governments, mainly National ones, the alliance with the United States had been seen as very important to New Zealand’s economic interests as well as to its defence. The alliance had been perceived as useful in enlisting American government help against protectionist pressures directed at New Zealand products by the United States Congress. Not only did Labour’s policy effectively end New Zealand’s alliance with the United States, but some risk of economic retaliation by Congress or the American consumer was run. Lange was later to write that it was the assessment of the New Zealand government that the economic impact of the nuclear-free policy could be contained,(32) but he also admitted in 1989 that the United States “might, if it had chosen, have damaged New Zealand’s economic interests as easily as you might flick a caterpillar off your sleeve.”(33)

It was not only the relationship with the United States which was put at some risk by Labour’s policy. In 1987, the British foreign secretary warned the Labour government that New Zealand’s antinuclear policies made it difficult for him to argue successfully New Zealand’s case for better access to the European Community’s markets.(34) Although Prime Minister Lange dismissed this warning, New Zealand’s former high commissioner in London suggested recently that New Zealand’s access was indeed affected by the unwillingness of the British government to be as helpful as previously in the negotiations with its community partners.(35)

Despite Labour’s economic insouciance in the dispute with the United States, there was a quite different policy performance with a government which was prepared to use its economic leverage over New Zealand. In 1985, agents of the French secret service sank a vessel belonging to Greenpeace International in Auckland harbour, killing one of the crew. Two of the French sabotage team were captured by the New Zealand police, tried and sentenced to ten years imprisonment for manslaughter. The French government was determined to secure the release of its agents, but the New Zealand prime minister declared that the agents would serve out their sentences. However, after France resorted to economic pressure to change the Labour government’s mind, New Zealand agreed to a settlement brokered by the United Nations. In its submission to the United Nations secretary general, the New Zealand government noted that a matter of very great concern to it was the threat made by the French external trade minister on 3 April 1986 that France might seek to link the dispute to the question of access for New Zealand butter to the European Community.(36) In the event, under the terms of arbitration, the agents were released into French custody, while New Zealand gained an apology and monetary compensation, as well as an assurance from France that it would not oppose continuing imports of butter into the United Kingdom.

Another conspicuous example of the importance of economic considerations in the Labour government’s foreign policy was provided by the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989. After the leader of Iran had threatened the British author Salman Rushdie with death for the alleged blasphemy contained in his new book, many European countries voiced protests and invoked diplomatic sanctions against Iran. The New Zealand government, however, proved unwilling initially to publicly criticize Iran for an abuse of human rights. When asked if New Zealand wished to take part in international protest action against Iran, the prime minister replied, “Not particularly.” He said it would be hard to explain why the government should cause New Zealand farmers to go out of business because of a threat made to a bookwriter in London.(37) European concern at New Zealand’s attitude, however, forced a reconsideration. A British Conservative party member of the European Parliament stated publicly that she did not see why her colleagues should support New Zealand’s trade access to the community if New Zealand would not stand up for free speech.(38) The British government called in New Zealand’s high commissioner in London to express its concern at Prime Minister Lange’s comments, and later the British foreign secretary suggested that New Zealand’s ambassador to Iran be at least called home for consultations.(39) The New Zealand government did call in the Iranian charge d’affaires to express concern at the Iranian leader’s statement, and later the minister of foreign affairs stated that New Zealand was strongly opposed to what was “effectively state terrorism.”(40) However, it was also announced that New Zealand’s ambassador in Iran would be staying there.(41)

The nuclear ban issue demonstrated that the Labour government was not always prepared to give New Zealand’s economic interests priority in its foreign policy. However, on two other occasions when the government’s principles clashed with New Zealand’s economic interests, those economic interests determined policy.

The National government which came to power in 1990 made it quite clear that its main concern in foreign affairs was the promotion of trade. Its election manifesto stated bluntly: “We acknowledge the link between our foreign policy and our trade requirements and we will give priority to the promotion of trade at every opportunity.”(42)


The fourth alleged characteristic of small states is that they generally seek to achieve their foreign policy goals through cooperation with other states, rather than acting alone. Indeed, a small state has actually been defined as one which recognizes that it cannot obtain security primarily by use of its own capabilities, and that it must rely fundamentally on the aid of other states, institutions, processes or developments to do so.(49) New Zealand under governments of both political colours has indeed sought to achieve its security goals in concert with other states, but in recent times National and Labour governments have differed sharply over the importance New Zealand should give to cooperation with its allies.

Before the Second World War, New Zealand relied on its relationship with Great Britain to fulfill its security, as well as its economic, goals. After the war, the relationship with the United States and Australia, formalised in the ANZUS alliance, became the main instrument for realizing security goals. For two decades after the ANZUS alliance was signed in 1951, the maintaining of a close relationship with its allies was a major objective of New Zealand’s security policy, and to this end, New Zealand governments of the 1950s and 1960s gave a high priority to cooperating with those allies. As one cabinet minister put it in 1965, “by helping our allies in matters affecting their national interest as well as our own, we have a just claim on them in time of need.”(44) One of the outcomes of this strategy was New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam War, which was agreed to reluctantly by a National government, mainly to preserve New Zealand’s security relationship with the United States and Australia.(45)

In 1972, however, a Labour government was elected which believed that New Zealand’s alliance relationships should no longer be accorded the highest priority in New Zealand’s foreign policy. This belief was partly a reaction to New Zealand’s military involvement in Vietnam, which Labour had opposed. Prime Minister Kirk announced that New Zealand intended to follow a more independent foreign policy, not allowing its policies to be determined by the views and interests of its most influential ally.(46) This did not mean, however, that New Zealand intended to abandon the ANZUS alliance, which Kirk saw as having continued validity for New Zealand. One of Labour’s “independent” policies was its proposal for the establishment of a South Pacific Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone, which New Zealand sponsored at the United Nations in 1975. New Zealand went ahead with this action in spite of both American and Australian opposition to it on the grounds that it could inhibit the operations of the United States Navy in the Pacific.(47) New Zealand’s defence chiefs had warned the Labour prime minister in writing that the government’s policies were causing “considerable alarm” to its allies, who thought it unwise of New Zealand to test the ANZUS relationship in the manner in which it appeared to be doing.(48)

In contrast, the National government which followed Labour in 1975 announced that the maintenance and strengthening of relations with the United States was viewed by the government “as deserving renewed emphasis.”(49) This government withdrew its support for Labour’s nuclear-free zone proposal because of the zone’s perceived threat to ANZUS. Prime Minister Muldoon said in 1976, “We believe … that our ANZUS alliance has stood New Zealand in good stead. We are determined to see that it continues to do this.” He went on to say that the government was convinced that ANZUS must remain strong and healthy because ANZUS was much more than a defence alliance.(50) Indeed, the National party manifesto in 1975 had declared that it saw the ANZUS alliance as a central element in developing New Zealand’s vital political, economic and technological interests, as well as its security interests.(51)

The return of a Labour government to office in 1984 saw a dramatic change in New Zealand’s attitude to the ANZUS alliance. This Labour government was willing to sacrifice New Zealand’s operational membership of the alliance in order to promote a disarmament policy which the United States saw as impinging on its interests. Labour did not set out to end the ANZUS relationship, but it was determined to prohibit the entry into New Zealand ports of vessels which might be carrying nuclear weapons, despite American objections that this was incompatible with remaining the ally of a nuclear power. After the government rejected the visit of an American warship, the United States suspended military cooperation with New Zealand and also stopped high-level political contact. American warnings of further consequences did not deter the Labour government from enshrining the nuclear ban in legislation, and in response the United States announced the suspension of the ANZUS security guarantee to New Zealand. Labour professed to be unconcerned by this, arguing that the nuclear arms race was now a greater threat to New Zealand’s security than any conceivable enemy.(52) By 1989, the prime minister was suggesting that New Zealand should consider withdrawal from ANZUS.

The rift with the United States did not lead in practice, however, to a policy of greater self-reliance in the defence field. Instead, it led to greater defence cooperation with New Zealand’s other ally, Australia. The 1987 Defence Review, sparked by the breakdown of the defence relationship with the United States, pointed to “the necessity of greater defence cooperation with Australia.”(53) The greater importance of New Zealand’s defence relationship with Australia was epitomized by the Labour government’s somewhat reluctant decision in 1989 to buy at least two Australian-built frigates to replace New Zealand’s existing frigate fleet. Although there were sound strategic reasons for buying the Australian frigates, “the deciding factor was Australia’s insistence that the purchase was a litmus test on whether or not New Zealand was serious about Trans-Tasman defence cooperation.”(54)

Under Labour, New Zealand also maintained an active part in the 1971 Five Power Defence Agreement for the defence of Malaysia and Singapore. Although in 1989 the Labour government brought home the New Zealand battalion which had been stationed in the Malaysia Singapore region since 1957, New Zealand retained a Defence Support Unit in Singapore to facilitate bilateral training activities with the countries of the region.

The election of a National government in 1990 saw the pendulum swing back towards the small state model with talk of the desirability of reviving alliance ties with the United States. The National party had fervently opposed the breakup of the alliance relationship with the United States, and as late as November 1989 had been campaigning for a repeal of the nuclear weapons ban in order to restore the alliance. Deputy party leader Donald McKinnon had said then that New Zealand should pay the price for getting back into the ANZUS alliance: “Being in ANZUS, meeting the cost of ANZUS and what it means to our international relations is a small price to pay for the access and influence we will gain.”(55) Although the pressure of public opinion forced National to endorse Labour’s nuclear ban in March 1990, it nevertheless remained a high priority of the National government after it was elected to restore the alliance relationship. In December 1990, McKinnon, the new minister of external relations and trade, as well as deputy prime minister, said, “We will be seeking to re-establish, through arrangements that are acceptable to both sides, effective cooperation in political, defence and security matters.” (56)


Small states are alleged to have a tendency to espouse moral causes in the international arena, and to give a high level of support to international legal norms. In as much as New Zealand’s foreign policy has displayed these characteristics, they have been associated much more with Labour governments than with National ones.

Labour governments have generally sought to advance certain ideals in their foreign policies, as well as to pursue the basic national interests. Labour’s major foreign policy ideals have been described as antimilitarism, antiimperialism and internationalism.(57) Since Labour’s basic concern domestically is with social justice, it has been interested in the advancement of this ideal abroad, and in human rights generally. The National party’s approach to foreign affairs, in contrast, has always emphasized realism over idealism. National governments have been mainly interested in New Zealand’s security and economic prosperity.(58)

The first Labour government, in office between 1935 and 1949, has been seen as conducting a “moral” foreign policy,(59) and certainly, it was assiduous in its condemnation of acts of aggression on the world scene. The approach of the first National government (1949-1957) to foreign affairs, in contrast, has been described as “less evangelical and more pragmatic. “(60)

When the third Labour government took office in 1972, it announced that it was determined to find and hold to a firm moral basis for its foreign policy, implying that in this it differed from its predecessor.(61) Prime Minister Kirk saw Labour’s stepped-up campaign against French nuclear testing and against apartheid in South Africa as proof of his government’s moral concerns. However, Labour’s foreign policy did not always choose principle over pragmatism, as its policy towards the recognition of the Baltic states showed.(62)

The National government which followed questioned the very idea of a “moral” foreign policy.(63) Certainly, it was not prepared to campaign actively against French nuclear testing because of the harm such action might do to New Zealand’s trade, and, unlike Labour, it was not prepared to prohibit South African sporting teams visiting New Zealand. The National government did not follow Australia in withdrawing recognition of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime as the legitimate government of Cambodia, and it did not join Britain (and many other states) in criticizing the American military intervention in Grenada.

The return of a Labour government in 1984, however, brought renewed signs of an interest in a moral approach to foreign relations. Labour came to power committed to closing down the South African consulate in New Zealand. In the first week after taking office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the Prime Minister’s instructions, approached the consulate about closing, and shortly afterwards the South Africans informed the government that they were closing the consulate immediately. Prime Minister Lange said that the consulate would be opened in future only if there were changes in South Africa, such as granting four-fifths of the people the right to vote.(64) The new government, Lange said, had certain moral principles and was sticking by them.(65) The leader of the National party criticized the decision as having an adverse effect on New Zealand’s credibility.

Although the Labour prime minister later claimed that the nuclear-free policy had not been implemented for moral reasons, but for practical, security ones,(66) the policy would seem to have contained a considerable element of moral distaste for nuclear weapons. Lange himself wrote in 1985, “Quite apart from the moral imperative, simple self-interest dictates that we should seek to eliminate the risks inherent in the present situation.”(67) In an Oxford Union debate the same year, the prime minister chose to argue that there was no moral case for nuclear weapons, and that rejecting nuclear weapons was “to allow true moral force to reign supreme.”(68)

The Labour prime minister spoke out strongly against the coups in Fiji in 1987, even though the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence advised a more cautious line.(69) Labour also did not balk at strongly condemning China for the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, although China was an important trading partner of New Zealand. New Zealand was also outspoken against the American air attack on Libya in 1986. Lange told Parliament that the American attack was a form of overreaction, and the fact that military action conformed with the United States’ rights of self-defense in international law did not necessarily make it “right.”(70) Britain, Canada and Australia all supported the American action, as did the National opposition in New Zealand.

On the other side of the moral and legal ledger, however, might be placed New Zealand’s initial unwillingness to condemn Iran over the death threat to Salman Rushdie, and its endorsement of the American military intervention in Panama in 1989, although that action was generally seen as a breach of international law.

The Bolger National government elected in 1990 was quick to announce that it was not interested in a foreign policy of moral gestures. The minister of external relations and trade said in 1992, “We cannot afford to be hindered by a single ideological approach, to take the moral high ground on every international issue of the day, or to feel we have some divine right to lecture the world.”(71) The external relations minister reversed the Labour government’s suspension of high-level contacts with Fiji by making that country the first stop on his first overseas tour. Later in 1991, the National government ended the practice of publicly condemning each French nuclear weapon test in the Pacific after it took place, a move that the Labour opposition said was a serious policy reversal.(72)


There has been disagreement among scholars as to whether small states tend to avoid behaviour which might alienate larger and more powerful states. The traditional view has been that small states exhibited behaviour which produced the least amount of risk to them, but a more recent suggestion is that small states are actually more prone to becoming involved in conflicts than larger states, because they are less equipped to see trouble coming and to take preventive measures.(73) For most of its history, New Zealand would seem to have followed a foreign policy which avoided actions likely to alienate larger powers when New Zealand was in disagreement with them. An instance was Prime Minister Kirk’s private letter to President Nixon, criticizing the Christmas 1972 bombing of Hanoi.(74) This discreet behaviour contrasted with the Australian Labour government’s public criticism of the American bombing, which alienated the American president. Even so, Kirk’s action was taken against the advice of officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The private letter was, however, entirely in keeping with New Zealand’s preferred style. New Zealand “shows a marked preference for making its disagreement known in Washington through private representations at the political and diplomatic levels.”(75)

In recent years, however, governments of both political colours have been involved in public conflict with larger states. Labour has been more ready than National to risk alienating countries which have some economic significance to New Zealand. It was the Kirk Labour government which adopted an active strategy against French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and a National government which preferred not to alienate the French. It was the Lange Labour government which implemented the nuclear ban that soured relations with both the United States and Britain, and a National government which opposed the ban.

A recent National government, however, also alienated other countries by its actions. The Muldoon government’s policy towards contact with South Africa sufficiently alienated African states for them to boycott the Montreal Olympics in 1976 because of New Zealand’s presence, and later those African states doomed New Zealand’s efforts to secure a Security Council seat in 1981-82.(76) National also alienated Argentina by breaking diplomatic relations with it over the Falklands War. New Zealand was the only Commonwealth country apart from Britain to take such an action. Argentina would not renew diplomatic ties until a Labour government took office.


In recent times, at least, there have been considerable differences between New Zealand governments in the degree of their adherence to the small state model of foreign policy behaviour. Labour and National governments have differed in the scope of their foreign policies, in the importance which they have given to cooperation with New Zealand’s allies, in the degree to which they have espoused moral causes in foreign policy, and in the extent to which economic interests have taken priority in their foreign policies. The two types of government have not, however, differed much in their degree of participation in world affairs, or in their propensity to come into conflict with larger powers.

The differences between Labour and National governments in their adherence to the small state model can be attributed mainly to Labour’s stronger commitment to certain internationalist ideals. This commitment has often led Labour to give idealistic objectives priority over other foreign policy goals in determining its policies, whereas National has seldom been ready to do this. Labour, as a party of reform, has an activist approach to the world. It believes that small states can and should contribute to the resolution of world problems, and the party’s leaders tended to be more interested in foreign affairs than in National’s. National has a more conservative, “realist” view of the role of a small state, concentrating on the protection of New Zealand’s basic national interests and emphasizing the importance of good relations with allies. Labour’s idealism has been responsible for its greater emphasis on “moral” polices, its greater desire to broaden New Zealand’s political contacts, its greater commitment to foreign aid, and its problems with New Zealand’s allies. The latter problems, for instance, have grown out of Labour’s commitment to disarmament, whereas the broadening of political contacts has reflected Labour’s interests in the concerns of the developing nations and in the promoting of international understanding. National’s “realism,” on the other hand, has lead to its greater readiness to send military forces abroad on support of New Zealand’s allies, a it did in Vietnam, the Sinai, and Falklands and the Gulf.

It can be cautiously concluded that the foreign policies of National governments have tended to conform to the precepts of the small state model more than have the foreign policies of Labour governments, with the glaring exception of the espousal of moral causes. In this respect, it is National which has deviated from the small state model, and Labour which has conformed with it. None of this is to argue that New Zealand foreign policies under Labour governments have not conformed with the small state model, but just that they have conformed less closely with the model than have foreign policies under National governments.

1 Ramesh Thakur, “The Elusive Essence of Size: Australia, New Zealand and Small States in International Relations,” in Richard Higgott and J.L. Richardson, eds., Interational Relations: Global and Australian Perspectives on an Evolving Discipline (Canberra: Department of International Relations, Australian National University 1991), pp. 240-87.

2 John Henderson, “New Zealand and the Foreign Policy of Small States,” in Richard Kennaway and John Henderson, eds., Beyond New Zealand II: Foreign Policy into the 1990s (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1991), p. 5.

3 Henderson, “New Zealand,” p. 6.

4 Ibid., p. 7.

5 Ibid.

6 New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 7 November 1983, p. 1.

7 New Zealand Foreign Affairs Review, vol. 38, no. 1 (October-December 1987), pp. 15-16.

8 New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 7 November 1983, pp.1 and 9.

9 New Zealand Herald, 19 December 1992, p. 2.

10 Report of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Year Ended 31 March 1976 (Wellington: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1976), p. 33.

11 New Zealand Herald, 7 December 1985, p. 4.

12 Ibid.

13 New Zealand Foreign Affairs Review, vol. 38, no. 1 (October-December 1987), p. 63.

14 “Basic Statistics: International Comparisons,” in OECD Economic Surveys: New Zealand 1992-1993 (Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1993), no page number.

15 Dominion (Wellington), 30 December 1992, p. 2.

16 Maurice A. East, “Size and Foreign Policy Behavior: A Test of Two Models,” World Politics, vol. 25, no. 4 (July 1973), p. 559.

17 New Zealand Ministry of External Relations and Trade, Overseas Posts, September 1992 (Auckland: Ministry of External Relations and Trade, 1992), pp. 4-5; Australian Bureau of Statistics, Yearbook Australia 1991 (Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1991), p. 5.

18 Malcolm Templeton, Top Hats Are Not Being Taken: A Short History of the New Zealand Legation in Moscow 1944-1950 (Wellington: New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, 1988), p. 11.

19 Bryce Harland, On Our Own: New Zealand in the Emerging Tripolar World (Wellington: Institute of Policy Studies, 1992), p. 46.

20 Report of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Year Ended 31 March 1975 (Wellington: Government Printer, 1975), p. 4.

21 New Zealand Herald, 17 February 1982, p. 1.

22 Martin Holland, “Labour and Africa,” in Jonathon Boston and Martin Holland, The Fourth Labour Government: Radical Politics in New Zealand (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 251.

23 Waikato Times (Hamilton), 12 March 1985, p. 1.

24 Report of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Year Ended 31 March 1987 (Wellington: Government Printer, 1987), p. 5.

25 David Lange, “The Fourth Labour Government: New Directions in New Zealand Foreign Policy,” in Hyam Gold, ed., Directions in New Zealand Foreign Policy (Auckland: Benton Ross, 1985), p. 34.

26 J. Stephen Hoadley, “New Zealand, Small States and Foreign Aid,” in John Henderson, Keith Jackson and Richard Kennaway, eds., Beyond New Zealand: The Foreign Policy of a Small State (Auckland: Methuen, 1980), pp. 118-19.

27 Henderson, “New Zealand,” p. 9.

28 David McCraw, “From Kirk to Muldoon: Change and Continuity in New Zealand’s Foreign Policy Priorities,” Pacific Affairs, vol. 55, no. 4 (Winter 1982-82), pp. 640-59.

29 Derek Round, “Our Foreign Policy is Trade,” New Zealand International Review, vol. 5, no. 1 (January-February 1980), p. 3.

30 McCraw, “From Kirk to Muldoon,” p. 653.

31 New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, vol. 453 (15 September 1983), p. 2448.

32 Lange, “New Directions,” p. 33.

33 David Lange, “Calling a Dead Letter, a Dead Letter,” New Zealand International Review, vol. 14, no. 4 (July-August 1989), p. 26.

34 New Zealand Herald, 28 April 1987, p. 3.

35 Harland, On Our Own, pp. 25-26.

36 New Zealand Foreign Affairs Review, vol. 37, no. 3 (July-September 1986), p. 39.

37 New Zealand Herald, 23 February 1989, p. 1.

38 New Zealand Herald, 24 February 1989, p. 2.

39 New Zealand Herald, 25 February 1989, p. 2, and 27 February 1989, p. 5.

40 New Zealand Herald, 25 February 1989, p. 2; Waikato Times, 3 March 1989, p. 7.

41 New Zealand Herald, 8 March 1989, p. 5.

42 Paul Harris and Stephen Levine, eds., with Margaret Clark, John Martin and Elizabeth McLeay, The New Zealand Politics Source Book (Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1992), p. 206.

43 Henderson, “New Zealand,” p. 10, quoting R.L. Rothstein, “Alliances and Small Powers” (New York: Columbia University, 1968), p. 7.

44 Hon. P.B. Allen in New Zealand Herald, 3 May 1965, p. 1.

45 David McCraw, “Reluctant Ally: New Zealand’s Entry into the Vietnam War,” New Zealand Journal of History, vol. 15, no. 1 (April 1981), pp. 49-60.

46 Report of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Year Ended 31 March 1973 (Wellington: Government Printer, 1973), p. 7.

47 McCraw, “From Kirk to Muldoon,” p. 645.

48 J. McLay, “Disarmament and Security: An Alternative Viewpoint,” New Zealand International Review, vol. 10, no. 3 (May-June 1985), p. 21.

49 Report of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Year Ended 31 March 1976, p. 4.

50 New Zealand Foreign Affairs Review, vol. 26, no. 4 (April-June 1976), p. 52.

51 New Zealand National Party, National Party 1975 General Election Policy, Policy No. 24, p. 2.

52 David Lange, “Facing Critical Choices,” New Zealand International Review, vol. 12, no. 4 (July-August 1987), p. 2.

53 The Defence of New Zealand — Review of Defence Policy 1987 (Wellington: Government Printer, 1987), p. 14.

54 John Henderson, “Changes in New Zealand Defence Policy,” in Richard Kennaway and John Henderson, eds., Beyond New Zealand II: Foreign Policy into the 1990s (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1991), p.89.

55 Waikato Times, 21 November 1989, p. 1.

56 Waikato Times, 21 December 1990, p. 2.

57 W. David McIntyre, “Labour Experience in Foreign Policy,” in Hyam Gold, ed., New Directions in New Zealand Foreign Policy (Auckland: Benton Ross, 1985) p. 11.

58 McCraw, “From Kirk to Muldoon,” p. 654.

59 Bruce Bennett, New Zealand’s Moral Foreign Policy 195-1939: The Promotion of Collective Security through the League of Nations (Wellington: New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, 1988).

60 Malcolm Templeton, “Introduction: Moving on from Suez,” in Malcolm McKinnon, ed., New Zealand in World Affairs (Wellington: New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, 1991), p. 2.

61 Report of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Year Ended 31 March 1973, p. 3.

62 David McCraw, “New Zealand and the Baltic States: Principle versus Pragmatism in Foreign Policy,” Australian Outlook, vol. 35, no. 2 (August 1981), pp. 191-200.

63 John T. Henderson, “The Operational Code of Robert David Muldoon,” in Stephen Levine, ed., Policies in New Zealand (Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1978), pp. 369-70.

64 Waikato Times, 1 August 1984, p. 1.

65 New Zealand Times (Wellington), 5 August 1984, p. 3.

66 Lange, “Calling a Dead Letter, a Dead Letter,” p. 24.

67 David Lange, “Disarmament and Security: the Government’s Perspective,” New Zealand International Review, vol. 10, no. 3 (May-June 1985), p. 14.

68 Waikato Times, 2 March 1985, p. 3.

69 John Henderson, “Foreign Policy Decision Making in New Zealand: An Insider’s View,” in Richard Kennaway and John Henderson, eds., Beyond New Zealand II: Foreign Policy into the 1990s (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1991), p. 221.

70 New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, vol. 470 (16 April 1986), p. 1030.

71 Waikato Times, 11 February 1992, p. 1.

72 Dominion, 21 May 1991, p. 1.

73 East, “Size and Foreign Policy Behavior,” p. 568.

74 Margaret Hayward, Diary of the Kirk Years (Queen Charlotte Sound and Wellington: Cape Catley and A.H. and A.W. Reed, 1981), p. 108.

75 Ramesh Thakur, In Defence of New Zealand: Foreign Policy Choices in the Nuclear Age (Boulder and London: Westview Press, 1986), p. 96.

76 New Zealand Foreign Affairs Review. vol. 37, no. 1 (October-December 1986), p. 14.

Copyright University of British Columbia Spring 1994

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