The clip on last night’s television of George W. Bush genially patting new boy John Key on the back at the APEC gathering in Peru was not only embarrassing to watch. It was a reminder that a change of government is not just about policy settings. It is also about who represents New Zealand on the world stage, and how that makes us feel – because political leaders don’t merely govern, they embody our sense of cultural identity. Well, we are all John Key now, whether we like it or not.
Just how the new government will recognize our cultural identity – much less fund it and promote it – goes beyond its support for the arts. New Zealand’s national identity has been shaped by its scientific, military, sporting and artistic achievements, on the bedrock of the Treaty partnership. Luckily, we have been spared the ‘culture wars’ that have been promoted in other countries by religious conservatives. Our own battles over abortion and gay rights were resolved by legislation that has since made it very difficult to keep the flames of conflict alive – and the fight over scrapping the S59 defence for violence against children is now petering out in the same civilized fashion.
I think the military/foreign policy dimension is where the change of government is most likely to put hard won aspects of our cultural identity at risk. In a nutshell – will Key be willing to send our troops overseas to fight, without a UN mandate ? Somehow, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully was allowed to get through an RNZ interview last week, without being asked whether the new government sees the UN – or our traditional allies – as the main external factor in our decisions about foreign policy and defence.
It matters. New Zealand’s sense of nationhood, so we’re always being told on Anzac Day, was forged at Gallipolli. For decades, New Zealand sent troops overseas at the beck and call of our traditional allies. Where Britain went, or the US and Australia went, so did we. This stance – of being a reliable ally or a doormat, depending on your perspective – eventually got us into the Vietnam war. It would have got us into the war in Iraq as well, if a significant change in our policy settings hadn’t occurred earlier in the decade.
The crucial document was Defence Beyond 2000, a review carried out by Derek Quigley, a former National Cabinet Minister who was ideologically on the extreme right of the political spectrum. After surveying the neglect and rundown of New Zealand’s defence forces by the National government during the 90s, Quigley outlined a re-building process that would be based on realistic risk assessments.
Our limited funds, Quigley indicated, could best be used (a) to build a well equipped and deployable Army contingent for conflict resolution and peacemaking roles overseas and (b) to invest in the means to protect the maritime exclusion zone around New Zealand. The Quigley review signalled that we had begun to grow up, and act as an independent state.
It entailed an independent foreign policy based on priorities set by New Zealand, and not in appeasement gestures to our friends in London, Washington or Canberra. In practice, Clark chose to deploy our troops overseas only under a United Nations mandate – in East Timor, and in Afghanistan, and to assist UN actions against terrorism. She did not regard the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as having a plausible UN mandate, and stayed out.
As a result, New Zealand was spared the backlash from outraged Islamic opinion that has been destructive for Britain, the US, and Australia. Yet safe to say – if National had won the 2002 election, New Zealand would have been involved militarily in the Iraq debacle, with resulting damage to our domestic security and international standing.
Therefore, we need to know whether the Key government does plans to change what are now the de facto conditions of military deployment. Will Key, like Clark, seek a UN mandate before he commits our troops and national reputation to conflict zones? The answer is not merely of academic interest. A UN mandate does already exist for the NZ troop presence in Afghanistan, based initially on resolutions passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Thus, early in the decade our military contribution in Afghanistan did include special forces troops – but these days, our role is virtually limited to the rebuilding efforts in Bamiyan province, by our Provincial Reconstruction Team.
That may change. Once Barack Obama is in the White House, the war effort in Afghanistan is likely to crank up considerably. Though there are elusive news stories about peace talks with the Taliban, the military momentum is with them – to the point where the Taliban now reportedly control 70 % of the country. Obama has made it clear that he wants ( and now almost has) a firm timetable for pulling US troops out of Iraq, so that he can then devote the US war effort into reversing the tide of the conflict in Afghanistan.
That will mean more US troops, more funds for genuine reconstruction – and a bigger role for US allies. The model for how it will happen already exists. In Iraq, the US put local Sunni tribal leaders on its payroll. It then armed them to the teeth and used them to form the so-called Awakening Councils – which then proved relatively successful in driving out al Qaeda foreign fighters from some regions. Obama has signalled his intention to use similar tactics in Afghanistan under the leadership of General David Petraeus, who devised the Awakening Councils tactic in Iraq, and who is now heading the US military effort in Afghanistan.
In a process that bears obvious similarities, the Pakistani military has already begun to recruit local maliks ( or chieftains) and their followers ( called lashkars) in order to drive out the Taliban and al Qaeda from tribal regions known to offer safe refuge for cross border forays into Afghanistan.
It is a strategy fraught with risk. In the 1990s, the US armed the local mujahideen in a very similar way to fight the Soviets, with disastrous effects – because the mujahideen eventually evolved into the Taliban. Currently, the lashkars seem to be ideologically neutral players in the Afghan war – but unless there is genuine health and education reform in their tribal regions, arming the lashkars is playing with fire. They could very easily flip to the Taliban, once the pay cheques stop coming.
Point being, if Obama cranks up the Afghan conflict via this blueprint he is likely to come knocking next year on the door of other countries – including America’s very, very, good friend, New Zealand – to ask us for a larger and more active military contribution. Is Key willing to rule out saying “ Yes” to such a request – and in reaching his decision, would he seek a fresh mandate from the UN, or would Key be more inclined to take his lead from Washington and Canberra ?
In particular, what assurances would Key be seeking from Washington about the terms of any fresh commitment – say, by our special forces – and its duration?
And would Key be willing to make the terms of engagement publicly available, so that New Zealanders can judge for themselves whether the risks involved in putting our troops ( and domestic security) on the line for such a cause are justified ?
Saying “No” on Iraq proved to be one of the best and most far sighted decisions made by the Clark administration. It would be re-assuring to think the new government had the ability to do the same, if the situation arises.
Yet watching Key on the world stage at APEC – whether it be him grinning back at Bush, or sitting awkwardly and cross legged with Alan Garcia – has not been very re-assuring. News reports that Key has called on Brazil, India and China to open up their markets ( to further the Doha Round) in response to the global financial crisis have also been alarming. It appears as though a National government is willing to play the role of attack poodle once again, on such issues. That’s us, always eager to please.
Lets get real instead. As China says, the global financial crisis began because of a lack of regulation and discipline in US financial markets. To think that a crisis caused by a lack of regulation in financial markets can be solved by creating even more laissez faire conditions in world trade is ridiculous – and China, India and Brazil will be treating Key’s suggestion with the contempt it deserves.
The world has changed. The 1980s mindset on free markets is now obsolete. Financial markets need to be regulated. Trade rules, under the Obama presidency will be more protectionist – if only because jobs at home matter, during a recession. If John Key can’t grasp this new consensus as he represents us on the world stage ….then we’re in deep trouble. Judging by the APEC conference, he currently looks more like an eager head prefect, than a headmaster.