The Foreign Affairs Puzzle Facing New Zealand’s New Government

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The Foreign Affairs Puzzle Facing New Zealand’s New Government

Once again, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters could end up playing an outsized role in foreign policy.

The Foreign Affairs Puzzle Facing New Zealand’s New Government
Credit: Pixabay

New Zealand’s new government will need to hit the ground running on foreign affairs.

Determining New Zealand’s full response to the war in Gaza and the fallout in the wider Middle East will be the first major test for whoever takes the foreign minister’s role.

New Zealand has been run by a Labor caretaker administration since elections were held on October 14. But the final results are now in – and once coalition negotiations are out of the way, a new right-leaning government will take office.

During the transition period, caretaker Labor Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and outgoing Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta have respected the convention of saying as little as possible while waiting for their successors.

When Labor has spoken out on foreign affairs, it has been after consultation with the National Party leader and soon-to-be prime minister, Christopher Luxon.

Luxon has characterized the new war in the Middle East as “sad and tragic on both sides” – a phrasing that reflects New Zealand’s overall balanced position toward the conflict so far.

One possible exception to the low-key approach was New Zealand’s decision to cast a vote in favor of a resolution in the U.N. General Assembly that called for a “humanitarian truce” in Gaza.

Many of New Zealand’s closest Pacific and Western partners either abstained on the resolution (e.g. Australia, Canada, and the U.K.) or opposed it altogether (such as the United States, Tonga, and Fiji).

It seems likely that New Zealand’s own vote in favor was decided by a narrow margin.

Carolyn Schwalger, New Zealand’s ambassador to the U.N., said New Zealand’s support came despite Wellington being “deeply disappointed” by the resolution’s failure to directly condemn Hamas.

Luxon later largely echoed Schwalger in a media interview, stressing the need to “prioritize the protection of civilians,” but condemning Hamas and emphasizing Israel’s right to defend itself.

Still, New Zealand’s vote in favor suggests there is still life to the country’s “independent foreign policy,” even as Wellington creeps closer to Washington at a broader level.

It will now be up to the new government to decide what happens next.

To command a majority in Parliament, Christopher Luxon’s National Party will need a deal with two other parties. These are the ACT Party, led by David Seymour, and Winston Peters’ New Zealand First.

Of the two smaller parties, New Zealand First is likely to play a particularly crucial role in determining the shape of New Zealand’s international relations.

Winston Peters has served as foreign minister twice before – but only under Labor-led governments. He held the role under Helen Clark from 2005-2008 and again under Jacinda Ardern from 2017-2020.

Peters is said to want the foreign minister’s job again, which would come as little surprise. Of course, the rumors could still prove to be incorrect. Now aged 78, Peters may not want the burden of travel himself.

Other options include Judith Collins, a former National leader, and Gerry Brownlee. However, Brownlee is a likely candidate for speaker. For her part, Collins easily has the experience for foreign affairs, having been in Parliament since 2002.

If Collins is not chosen for foreign minister, the defense portfolio would be a worthy alternative option, especially as New Zealand looks to make some major decisions on military spending.

Surprisingly, no woman has ever served as New Zealand’s defense minister. A role model for Collins could be Ursula von der Leyen, a center-right politician who served as Germany’s first-ever female defense minister from 2013-19 and went on to become a high-profile president of the European Commission.

Yet another option could be for Peters to claim the foreign minister job for his New Zealand First deputy, Shane Jones, who served as a roving “Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development” in the Foreign Ministry from 2014-2017.

The position was somewhat controversially created for Jones by the then National-led government after Jones quit as a Labor MP, before he later reemerged as a key figure in New Zealand First.

Even if it passes up on the foreign affairs portfolio, New Zealand First is likely to be influential and outspoken on international relations issues.

An “agree to disagree” clause in New Zealand First’s coalition agreement with Labor in 2017 prevented New Zealand First from being muzzled under the usual collective Cabinet responsibility provisions.

Peters’ past speeches provide some clues as to how he might respond to current developments.

During his first term as foreign minister, Peters observed at the United Nations shortly after Israel’s 32-day war with Hezbollah in 2006 that conflicts in the Middle East had largely been left to fester, resulting in “an unstable environment where extremism, injustice and despair flourish.”

Peters told the U.N. General Assembly that peacekeeping efforts – such as the strengthening of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) following the 2006 war – were only a stopgap solution and would be “doomed to failure unless the underlying political and security issues are addressed.”

More recently, as tensions between the United States and Iran mounted, Peters observed in a speech to the Otago Foreign Policy School in 2019 that it was in New Zealand’s interest to stop “flashpoints escalating” and commended Washington for avoiding “retaliatory strikes.” The speech built on an earlier statement in which Peters called for “caution, restraint and common sense” from all involved.

A 2023 election campaign speech by Peters that was dedicated to foreign affairs provides some wider insights into New Zealand First’s foreign affairs and defense priorities.

These include picking up on New Zealand First’s efforts from 2017-2020 to boost New Zealand’s foreign aid and defense budgets. At the time, Peters secured an additional NZ$714 million in funding for foreign aid – largely targeted at the Pacific as part of his “Pacific Reset” policy. Meanwhile, military spending was boosted by around NZ$4 billion over the same three-year period.

Peters also gained funding for 50 more diplomats – a feat he seems keen to build on.

Contrasting New Zealand with two other small states – Singapore and Ireland – Peters argued New Zealand needed “highly active diplomacy,” which in his view had been “shockingly not pursed with vigor” since 2020.

This was probably partly a jibe at the outgoing foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, who came under pressure during her tenure for a perceived reluctance to travel frequently.

Peters’ contrast with Singapore and Ireland also surfaced in a campaign interview, with some eviscerating criticism: “Ireland has two-and-a-half-times more diplomats offshore, so does Singapore – maybe they know something about exporting and trade that we should be practicing, rather than this eternal idiotic statement that New Zealand is ‘punching above its weight.’’’

As foreign minister, Peter oversaw the opening of new diplomatic posts in Cairo (2007), Dublin (2018), Stockholm (2008 and 2018 – the latter a reopening). But not all of these were his idea.

On the substance, Ireland already has around 100 diplomatic missions globally – twice the number maintained by New Zealand – and is currently expanding its diplomatic footprint even further under an initiative dubbed “Global Ireland 2025.”

It remains to be seen whether Peters will be in a position to replicate the “Global Ireland 2025” plan in New Zealand – and what exactly he would seek to achieve with more diplomatic resources.

Opening up more missions in the Middle East would help to give New Zealand the eyes and ears it needs to understand and respond more effectively to events in the region. As the current war shows, these frequently have a global impact.

Another focus might be to boost diplomats’ access to foreign language training, which has been dealt a blow by recent cuts to languages by New Zealand universities.

Nevertheless, stepping up engagement in the Pacific is probably going to be the bigger long-term priority for New Zealand First.

In a 2006 speech, Peters remarked that the Pacific’s “strategic significance presents opportunity and challenge,” and the threats included “checkbook diplomacy” – probably an early veiled barb at China.

Fast-forward to 2023, and the New Zealand First leader seems keen to pick up on the “Pacific Reset” policy he launched in March 2018.

In his September campaign speech, Peters recapitulated how as foreign minister he had sought to work more closely with Pacific countries themselves, as well as boosting engagement with the United States and Japan – on top of the foreign aid and defense budget boosts.

But Peters warned he was “seriously concerned that the momentum we started has fallen by the wayside since 2020.”

After a successful election campaign, the New Zealand First leader is now in a position to change that. Christopher Luxon needs Peters to form a government. And a shakeup of New Zealand’s international relations seems likely.

This article was originally published by the Democracy Project, which aims to enhance New Zealand’s democracy and public life by promoting critical thinking, analysis, debate, and engagement in politics and society.