Interests and Values in NZ's Pacific Foreign Policy

New Zealand International Review January – February 2012
Interests and values in foreign policy: a practitioner’s view 

Gerald McGhie* critiques an aspect of Professor Robert Ayson’s inaugural lecture, focusing on the Pacific.

Diplomacy relies on an informed calculation of consequences, which in turn are guided by a comprehensive and on-going appraisal of national interests and values. The role of values is not to provide abstract and universal principles for New Zealand’s foreign policy decisions. It is rather to illuminate and control conceptions of the national interest. In the Pacific, where New Zealand, unusually, is a major player, the closest attention must be paid to the essential balance between interests and values.

Professor Robert Ayson’s valuable inaugural lecture on interests and values in New Zealand’s engagement with Asia1 discusses an area of vital concern for New Zealand. His comments have more general application. My emphasis lies with the Pacific and looks to interests and values from the practitioner’s point of view.

As Ayson demonstrates, the subject is complex. It has also engaged major foreign policy thinkers over a long period of time. The questions relate to the derivation of interests and whether they reflect our values. He discusses the real or apparent clash between values and interests, the quality of values, the question of common values and the role of economic factors in the make-up of values. In a telling comment, Ayson asks at ‘what point our mutual interests in regional peace and stability also act as deeply held values, beliefs and principles which hold whether… they bring material advantage to us’.2 With this proposition, he again reflects the inherent difficulty of the subject.

To shift perspective: temperament, says William James, determines philosophies. Two schools divide temper-amentally between those who ask of policy: is it morally right? (the mora-list school); will it work? (the realists). Arthur Schlesinger, an academic practitioner, considers that no realist can escape perceptions of good and evil. No policy can divorce ethical from geo-political considerations. He sees the impenetrability of human motives as serving to obscure whether moral reasons are ‘realistic concerns in disguise’ or realistic concerns are ‘moral concerns in disguise’.4In practical terms one thing is certain: there are no sure outcomes in foreign policy. Diplomacy traditionally relies on an informed calculation of consequences that in turn are guided by a comprehensive and on-going appraisal of national interests and values.

Particularly for New Zealand, a small country with limited resources, any calculation of consequences would be underpinned by a calibrated sense of modesty.

Continuous competition

Furthermore, policy-making in a democracy does not take place in an environment divorced from the day-to-day and mundane issues dealt with by legislators. Foreign policy officials now compete with other government departments for the ear of the executive, enquiries by currently very active parliamentary committees, breaking news stories in the media and various pressure groups with greater or lesser integrity. These developments reflect a process of democratisation within New Zealand as a whole and in foreign policy-making in particular. In a poignant comment on what happens in government, the late Richard Holbrooke, the United States administration’s special representative in Afghanistan, said


people sit in a room, they don’t air their real differences. [A] sloppy consensus appears over those underlying dif­ferences. And they go back to their offices and continue to work at cross purposes, even actively undermining each other.5

Globalisation, too, plays its part. Multinational cor-porations are now virtually major players in international relations. They answer to no publicly elected body. Nor within the confines of current economic theory do as to provide not directives but rather perspectives that ‘clarify and civilise’ perceptions of national interest. For Schlesinger morality primarily resides in ‘the content a nation puts into the idea of national interest’ and national interest is the ‘indispensable magnetic compass for policy’ without which there would be no order or predictability in international affairs. Moral values have a fundamental role in foreign affairs,7 but this role does not provide ‘abstract and universal principles for foreign policy decisions they have to act in the interests of the community as a whole. They can function amorally or immorally, apolitically or very politically indeed — as the gyrations surrounding News Corp in the United Kingdom currently demonstrate.

How does this mix of factors affect the interests/values conundrum? Schlesinger considers that it is ‘precisely through national interest that moral principles enter most effectively into the formation of foreign policy’.6 He sees the function of morality. It is rather to illuminate and control conceptions of national interest’.

National interest

The assumption here is that other nations have legitimate ‘traditions, interests, values and rights of their own’.9 The American diplomat George Kennan saw national interest as informed by ‘prudence and law, scrupulous respect for the equal interests of other nations and, above all a rigorous fidelity to one’s own sense of honour and decency’.10 He sees this factor as more likely to be effective than trumpeting moral absolutes to bring about restraint, justice and peace among nations. Through much of his writing George Kennan was a strong advocate of looking first to the shortcomings in one’s own society.

Ayson’s focus is Asia, where New Zealand is a minor player. In the Pacific, however, New Zealand is a major factor. The relationship has not all been plain sailing. Aspects of New Zealand’s administration of Samoa under the League of Nations mandate demonstrated a marked degree of insensitivity and remain controversial. To some extent the situation was retrieved post-Second World War by taking an early opportunity to grant independence to Samoa. In later years New Zealand has allocated a great deal more aid to Samoa and the Pacific generally, but questions remain on appropriateness and quality of implementation. These have again, to me, demonstrated a lack of deep understanding of Samoan culture. With some 6 per cent of New Zealand’s population now of Pacific origin, it will be in New Zealand’s interests to take a more inclusive approach and acquire a genuine understanding of Pacific cultures (values), languages and priorities. In fact, it is in domestic politics that our interaction with the Pacific will be most keenly felt.

Fijian issue

Since Fiji represents a yet to be resolved issue for New Zealand and the Pacific Forum, Suva as a major Pacific capital cannot be ignored. Let us be clear. Coup d’├ętats cannot be condoned and if they do occur the resulting regimes should be as short-lived as possible — as in the recent case of Thailand. Bainimarama and his government have many faults. But I am concerned at the approach to the coup adopted by individual Pacific Forum leaders. Professor Ayson refers to a ‘dose of values’. One of those values appears to be a continuing exhortation that Fiji hold elections and ‘return to democracy’. An article in The Australian by Graham Davis11 was illuminating. Calls by the (then) Australian prime minister and foreign minister for a ‘return to democracy in Fiji’, said Davis, demonstrated a lack of awareness that ‘there has never been real democracy in Fiji’. Certainly not the brand of democracy, as Davis put it, ‘taken for granted in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and in the European Union — those now casting themselves as righteous crusaders against Bainimarama’. There is ‘no one-man, one-vote in Fiji but a contorted, distorted electoral system along racial lines that was always designed, in practice, to ensure indigenous supremacy’.

These comments are backed up by academic analysis.12 Simply adopting the trappings of self-government or holding elections will not solve the deep-seated problems that lie at the heart of Fiji. They are a legacy of the colonial past — a legacy characterised by five coups since independence. That is, a coup every eight years or so, or approximately every five years since the first military coup in 1987. If holding elections is going to solve Fiji’s problems, why has that solution not emerged in the 50 years since independence?

One wonders what the real question is. Is it that Fiji’s moral standards must be the same as our moral standards? Thus when we find little progress being made, we appeal to those standards as the source of our grievance. Kennan sees interventions on moral principle as defensible only if practices seriously injurious to our own interests rather than simply to our sensibilities are in evidence.

Collegial approach

A more fa’a pasifika approach could have drawn on longstanding ministerial statements about our identity as a Pacific nation. This might have allowed a more collegial approach, one of the central values of our own bicultural society, to emerge while at the same time providing an opportunity for the inherent qualities of diplomacy (such as methodology, style, restraint and diplomatic discourse) to take their course. We could then have made known our displeasure at the illegal seizure of power by stating clearly that there is something deeply at variance with the norms of stable government in Fiji and offering to assist the regime to establish practical measures to help solve the problem. My position has been stated publicly. Instead we have chosen to play on regional prejudices and to follow a line more representative of Canberra’s views than of our own.

New Zealand International Review 9Sanctions have a chequered history; they are not always as effective as they are thought to be. Frankly, I see a reluctance on New Zealand’s part to examine, in a hard headed way, conceivable alternatives to our policy on Fiji.

The derivation of values is, of course, a complex one. In his inaugural speech as governor-general, Sir Anand Satyanand described New Zealand characteristics as a dislike of the abuse of power, inquisitiveness associated with small societies, having no significant hierarchies and a liking for individual expression. I would add a preference for liberal democracy and a strong wish to give others a fair go, expressing itself in social welfare legislation particularly in the promotion of health and education. I also consider the rejection of unfairness or dislike of inequality, as well as an expectation of high standards of governance coupled with a respect for the rule of law, as deeply ingrained in the New Zealand psyche. These characteristics ideally would be nurtured within the context of an inclusive society, one that would attempt fairly to resolve bicultural issues without rancour and would be receptive to the ideas and ethics characteristic of an increasingly multicultural society.

The discussion of human values is complex and it has exercised Western philosophy for hundreds of years. I focus on two issues: human rights and the rule of law. These, to me, encapsulate much of the values discussion.

Changing situation

Writing in the mid-1980s, Kennan considered that there were no internationally accepted standards of morality that (in his case) the United States could appeal to if it wished to act in the name of morality.15 The situation is changing. As Lord Bingham, who recently visited New Zealand, says, the rule of law now demands protection of fundamental human rights.16 He points specifically to European Court of Justice rulings and the European Convention on Human Rights, which is given effect in the United Kingdom by the Human Rights Act 1998. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights may, in Kennan’s view, be declaratory only, but, as Bingham says, it has provided a number of international instruments, in particular the International Criminal Court.

Legal instruments are one thing. Reality can be a little different, but I favour Schlesinger’s comment that ‘pressure on observance will never make human rights secure but it will make tyranny insecure for some time to come’.17 Perhaps progress is being made on the perceptions surrounding human rights norms and thus about a broader understanding of what morality means in international relations. Perhaps. But given the incidence of atrocious genocides and blatant disregard for human rights on the part of a number of governments in the last ten to fifteen years, there is clearly some way to go.

There is a secondary issue. In her 2002 Reith Lectures, Onora O’Neill considered that the Universal Declaration not only defines rights poorly but also says nothing about corresponding duties. Later United Nations and European instruments make no reference to who is required to do what or why they are required to do it. The underlying difficulty with the Universal Declaration, O’Neill says, is that it assumes a ‘passive view of human life and citizenship. Moreover, the document stresses entitlements while not answering the question “what should I do?”’ Unless corresponding duties are included in any declaration regarding rights there is, to O’Neill, little prospect of rights issues achieving successful implementation. Further, the document’s concept of universality leaves it to the states to put into practice. The weakness of governance in many parts of the world — particularly among Pacific states — casts doubt on the real ability of governments to implement the terms of the declaration. I make a clear distinction here between the passing of a law of and its effective implementation.

Strategic importance

Pacific nations form an area of major strategic importance to New Zealand and demonstrate the inadequacy of rights issues when based on the Universal Declaration.

A sub-set of the weak governance issue is the question of the appropriateness of rights-based declarations to non-rights-based communities. Many Pacific Islands communities remain family/community-based societies where loyalty is based on customary concepts and the immediate and extended family — not on people as individuals. Many will recall that when push came to shove in the 2006 Bainimarama coup the human rights committee in Fiji came out with a statement that was tantamount to an apology for the illegal change of government. This was a rather confused response to say the least. In his Nobel Prize speech President Obama might have been (but certainly was not) thinking of Australia and New Zealand in regard to their policies towards Fiji when he said:

the promotion of human rights cannot be about exhorta­tion alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive re­gimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — and condemna­tion without discussion — can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

Closely linked to human rights issues is the question of the rule of law. To Lord Bingham the centrality of the rule of law is that all people (and this includes officials) should be bound by and entitled to a legal system openly implemented. In his carefully argued book The Rule of Law, he considers that law needs

  • to be accessible and intelligible
    to ensure that disputes are resolved fairly by law not by discretion
  • to be applied equally to all and not subject to prohibitive costs
  • to protect fundamental human rights.18

In common with many Western philosophers (particularly Locke and Hobbes), Bingham considers that the rule of law demands sacrifice by all of some freedom and power.

Inadequate implementation

Bingham’s views are important. But it does not take a too close reading of his criteria to see that implementation has fallen well short of the ideal. Sometimes because of too hasty drafting, excessive costs are involved in getting legal advice. Lengthy delays in the courts, and at times rulings that seem to lack consistency have served to reduce the system’s credibility. It may be that the underlying ideas reflect the fundamental morality of the community and we in New Zealand feel broadly comfortable with the result. But when we project our morality onto other cultures — as in the Pacific — with entirely different social values and traditions, we are coming close to cultural disconnection. The New Zealand Law Commission’s Converging Currents, Custom and Human Rights in the Pacific (2006) provides an excellent platform from which to study at least the legal dimensions of the issue.

These are (like most other periods in history) complex times greatly aggravated by the influence of electronic media, the dominance of images (particularly television) over the printed word, spin created by expensive public relations firms and the pressures of electoral politics. Distinguishing the real from the unreal is becoming increasingly difficult.

Robert Ayson notes that we now get much of our thinking about interests from economists. That particular and very narrow source should be held up to the closest scrutiny. Confining ourselves to issues of economic efficiency and productivity while ignoring ethical considerations and broader references to social goals will ultimately, as a population, affect our ability to engage effectively with each other.19 The market as such is part of the community. If the community is disaffected in a deep-seated way the market too will be affected. The philosopher Edmund Burke saw society as a partnership. The task for government, as an honest broker, is to ensure that the public dialogue is maintained effectively. This will mean, inevitably, intelligent regulation — as Bingham states, the rule of law assumes that each is required to give up some freedom and power.

Careful consideration

The shared values outlined in Ayson’s address must be given careful consideration in relation to the Pacific.20 These include accommodation, respect, lawfulness, generosity, responsibility, sustainability and restraint. The community is aware of such concepts. But perhaps, as Tony Judt says, in relation to these and other values ‘we are familiar with such concepts as injustice, unfairness, inequality, immorality etc. we have just forgotten how to talk about them’.21 Not only talking about them but acting on them would facilitate an approach to the Fiji issue.

The prescriptive approach New Zealand and Australia have adopted on Fiji to date has produced little advance and, indeed, may have served to harden attitudes within Fiji.22 New Zealanders are by nature a pragmatic people more comfortable with restraint and prudence than ideology. This disposition should make us cautious about involving ourselves in other countries’ complex problems.

And there is always the particularist aspect. Isaiah Berlin observes that ‘the distinctive political movements of the twentieth century Fascism, Naziism, Communism but also managerialism (whether progressive or corporate) regarded independent thought with hostility’.23 The tendency in official deliberations and communications is to resort to ‘measurable’ inputs, outputs and performance indicators. It is well to assess performance. But the complex issues in foreign policy formulation cannot be reduced to a species of technical problem. Foreign policy, dealing as it does with other quite different cultures and at times with very long-term issues, must be recognised for what it is — the face of New Zealand’s identity, values and interests as well as its long-term survival.

New Zealand continues to have a contribution to make internationally, but it can do so more by eliminating unsound positions and representing the community at large rather than espousing a corporatised concept at variance with, in this particular case, Pacific realities. A start would be made by stepping back, consolidating our own values and working to resolve our own problems.


NOTES
1. Dr Robert Ayson, professor of strategic studies, Victoria University of Wellington, 19 Jul 2011 ‘Interests, Values and New Zealand’s Engagement With Asia’, Inaugural Lecture.
2. Ibid. (as delivered), p.10.
3. Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Cycles of American History (Boston, 1986), p.72.
4. Ibid., p.70.
5. The New Yorker, 5 Jul 2010.
6. Schlesinger, p.80.
7. Ibid., p.86.
8. Ibid., p.80.
9. Ibid., p.86.
10. George F. Kennan, At a Century’s End: Reflections 1982–1995 (New York, 1996), p.213.
11. The Australian, 16 Apr 2009.
12. See particularly Vijay Naidu, ‘Coups in Fiji: Seesawing Democratic Multiracialism and Ethno-Nationalist Ex­tremism’, Devforum, Issue 26 (2007), pp.24–33.
13. Kennan, p.273.
14. Most recently in the Dominion Post, 4 Oct 2010.
15. Kennan, p.271.
16. Tom Bingham, The Rule of Law (London, 2011).
17. Schlesinger, p.80.
18. Bingham, op cit.
19. The Templeton Foundation Newsletter, September 2011, concluded that the problems underlying the recent rioting in Britain were: rapid secularisation (presumably without an adequate ethical replacement) and post-1960s ethos fo­cusing more on rights than duties. The problem permeates all levels of society. The upper levels saw little need to sac­rifice their own wants for the greater good. The profligate life styles of bankers, ‘celebrities’ and politicians provided no useful lead.
20. Ayson, p.15.
21. Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (London, 2010), p.177.
22. See the poll conducted by the Lowy Institute just prior to the September 2011 Pacific Forum in Auckland.
23. Isaiah Berlin, Political Ideas in the Romantic Age, Their Rise and Influence on Modern Thought, edited by Henry Hardy (Princeton, 2006).

* Gerald McGhie is a former diplomat and director of the NZIIA. He was chairman of the New Zealand Chapter of Transparency International from 2006 to 2009. The text of Robert Ayson’s lecture can be found at www.victoria.ac.nz/css/docs/Current%20Work/2011/Inaugural%20Lecture%2019.07.11.pdf

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