The meaning of independence

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 1 July 2022

A major part of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s itinerary while in Europe this week included speaking at the NATO leaders’ summit in Spain. And what a good, powerful speech it was.

An invitation to the Western defence alliance’s summit is unusual. It is even more unusual to invite four guests at the same time. Australia, Japan, and South Korea were also attending.

Australia, Japan, and South Korea have strong links to NATO, not least because of their closer relationship with the United States.

Meanwhile, since 1984, New Zealand has maintained an ‘independent foreign policy’ mantra. So is there a contradiction with the Prime Minister’s participation in Madrid?

Not necessarily, as former Prime Minister Helen Clark commented via Twitter. Clark pointed to the existing dialogue relationship New Zealand has had with NATO for two decades. During the Afghanistan war, she once attended a NATO meeting herself, she recalled.

That is all correct, and yet today’s circumstances are different.

Despite the threat of Islamic terrorism, the global environment was more benign in Clark’s days. That was the heyday of globalisation.

Geopolitics has changed since, and not for the better. Russia has attacked Ukraine. Globalisation is in retreat. China is becoming more authoritarian and assertive.

NATO’s response is two-fold. Its members are increasing their defence spending so NATO can increase its quickly deployable troops to 300,000. At the same time, NATO’s regional focus is broadening from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific.

This is where New Zealand comes into play. As NATO tries to expand its role in our region, it is only natural that New Zealand be consulted along with other democratic nations. As NATO puts a greater emphasis on its role as a union of liberal-democratic values and not just as a regional defence alliance, this makes sense as well.

Whether this is compatible with an independent foreign policy depends on what one means by that expression.

Independence does not mean never taking sides. That would be neutrality.

Independence does not entail never deploying one’s military, either. That would be pacifism.

Independence means to make one’s own choices based on one’s values.

Such value-driven choices can (and indeed should) lead towards taking sides when democracies and dictatorships collide.

Seen from this angle, there is no conflict between New Zealand’s independent foreign policy and seeking a closer alignment with like-minded democracies through NATO.

Jacinda Ardern was right to accept NATO’s invitation to Madrid. Helen Clark was equally right to defend her decision.

Yet, New Zealanders must realise that, in a less benign world, an independent foreign policy cannot mean neutrality. And the Prime Minister delivered that message loud and clear.

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