It is perhaps one of the most over looked achievements of the current National Government that it has managed to define what an independent foreign policy looks like.
This was very much the theme last night of a farewell speech from outgoing Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, to the Institute of International Affairs in Wellington.
McCully was able to shift National’s policy on the crucial anti-nuclear legislation only after John Key became leader in 2006.
Before that the party’s policy since 1985 had been to find a way back into ANZUS.
But McCully committed the party to upholding Labour’s Nuclear Free legislation recognising that that meant there would be no way back to ANZUS.
“In both policy documents and speeches I said that a National-led Government would run an independent foreign policy – that we would not seek to join or re-join alliances, and that we would bring an independent New Zealand perspective to foreign policy,” he told the Institute.
So he believed that New Zealand should strive for bipartisanship in its foreign policy.
“New Zealand foreign policy needs to be conducted in decades, and not in three-year political cycles.
“So, during my term as Foreign Minister, I have deliberately sought to ensure that the settings we have established would stand the test of time – that there would be no great need or incentive for successors to seek major policy change.
“I have sought to respect and enhance the equities created by my predecessors and hope that my successors might do the same.”
In a way, this is a return to the way foreign policy was conducted until a National Government committed New Zealand troops to the Viet Nam war in 1965.
That led, ultimately, to the 1984 Labour Government’s anti-nuclear policies and the departure from ANZUS.
Though we have not gone back to ANZUS, McCully said the relationship with the US was strong.
“We have substantially achieved our objective of creating a full, mutually respectful relationship with the United States, involving cooperation in virtually every sphere, now including, after a thirty-year hiatus, two US ship visits in recent months.
“Importantly, we have achieved this in a way which has carried overwhelming public support, and which will likely see future governments build upon the base that has been created, rather than seeking further policy change.”
If there is an ongoing tension in the ANZUS relationship, it is more often likely to be with Australia with whom McCully said we have “our closest and most complete relationship.”
McCully said that while the relationship was close, there were also differences.
“For a start, Australia is a formal ally of the United States.
“And Australia is a middle or G20 power with interests to match, and New Zealand is a smaller niche actor with a tighter focus on our own region.
“So while our unique relationship sees New Zealand and Australia naturally align almost all the time, we should never get bent out of shape over the issues on which we do not see eye-to-eye.”
Another feature of McCully’s nine-year term as Foreign Minister has been the rise of China both as a bi-lateral trading partner and also as a global and regional power.
“I do want to address directly the notion that seems to attract coverage on slow news days that somehow New Zealand will at times need to choose between its relationship with the US and its relationship with China.
“That belief shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of both relationships.
“It also runs directly counter to the whole notion of an independent foreign policy.
“We will, and do, agree and disagree with both the US and China according to our own sense of what is right, and what is in New Zealand’s interests.”
That independent streak was most notable during New Zealand’s term on the Security Council particularly at the controversial December meeting at which it sponsored the resolution condemning Israel’s settlements on the West Bank.
“Rather than being overcome by frustration while on the Council we did try to play a constructive role, we did listen to the views of all parties, we were hugely active and energetic, we did call it as we saw it when this needed to be done, and we did annoy most of our friends at one time or another.”
What McCully might have said was that the Israel resolution also annoyed a good many of his colleagues.
But if he wanted to demonstrate New Zealand’s independent line on foreign policy it achieved that.
He concluded the speech with an account of the gains that have been made in the Pacific where has out a particular personal emphasis and has enhanced with moves such as the appointment of Shane Jones as Economic Ambassador to the region.
McCully has been a controversial Foreign Minister but not so much because of his foreign policies.
He angered many in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade with the appointment of John Allen as CEO and subsequent radical restructuring which saw many highly regarded diplomats shown the door.
And much of his time in Parliament has been spent defending his actions over the Saudi Agri-Hub and whether or not the money paid to Hamood Al Khalaf was really a bribe.
In many ways, the Agri-Hub affair was more what might have been expected from McCully than a coherent foreign policy.
Given all the rumour and speculation that has surrounded his political career during which he gained a not undeserved reputation as a policial hard man, “the Black Prince”, a sort of Machiavelli flitting between National’s smoke filled rooms with yet another deal or plot to unseat a Leader or promote a new one, his transformation into a Foreign Minister was a surprise.
But from the foreign policy perspective he ahs achieved a great deal; more, arguably, than any recent foreign minister because he has freed New Zealand foreign policy from being reactive to becoming more willing to go on the front foot.