Noew Zeeland has long prided itself on having an ‘independent’ foreign policy that charts a middle ground between great powers. It is an approach that the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her new Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, have strongly supported. Over the past week, however, Ardern has moved much closer to America.
It is the latest sign that independence is becoming increasingly difficult for small countries caught in fierce competition for power. It also begs the question: is this the end of New Zealand’s ‘independent’ foreign policy, and if so, what comes next?
Ardern’s first step came last week in a speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, a prominent foreign policy think tank. “The novelty of the speech was Ardern’s embrace of the phrase ‘Indo-Pacific,'” said Van Jackson, an international relations academic at Victoria University of Wellington. Using that term is important, Jackson said, because the “Indo-Pacific” is a geopolitical framework that “was created explicitly to counter China” by rhetorically balancing Asia with India.
In the sensitive world of diplomacy, words matter. Ardern’s use of the “Indo-Pacific” framing indicates that New Zealand is on the side of America and eager for help.
That alert was gratefully answered. Immediately following Ardern as a speaker for the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs was Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden’s “Asia Czar,” who emphasized that “the country that needs to do more is probably not New Zealand, but the United States.”
Ardern’s second move came days later, after New Zealand’s foreign intelligence agency linked state-sponsored hacking groups to cyber-attacks on New Zealanders. New Zealand quickly joined a coalition, including the US, UK, European Union and Australia, that denounced the attacks and urged China to stop them. It showed that when faced with aggression, New Zealand would side with its traditional allies.
This willingness to align with America can be understood by comparing today’s world to that of the 1980s, when New Zealand’s “independent” foreign policy was first taking shape. At the time, a new Labor government banned visits from nuclear-powered ships and allowed the collapse of a military alliance with America. Great power competition still dominated world politics, but was nearing its end; the remaining points of the cold war conflict were far enough away to feel the risks of independence sufficiently small.
This time, New Zealand is on the front lines of major power competition. In her speech, Ardern explained that her use of the “Indo-Pacific” was in response to “more challenging geopolitics” in the Pacific. Like many others, New Zealand struggles to manage relations with China.
Ardern described the relationship as “increasingly complex”. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Mahuta drew attention to the trade war between Australia and China to warn that “it may only be a matter of time before the storm approaches”.
In this context, the costs of foreign policy independence – and the appeal of the alignment of major powers – have become more apparent.
However, it is important not to overestimate the importance of these developments. Some New Zealand observers claimed after Ardern’s speech that she had “firmly aligned New Zealand’s foreign policy with the United States”. But while Ardern and Mahuta have brought New Zealand closer to America, they are still trying to keep some distance.
While embracing the “Indo-Pacific” framing, Ardern also emphasized that “often language and geographic ‘frames’ are used as subtext, or a tool to exclude some countries … Our success will depend on partnering with such a widest possible range of partners.” Rather than adopting the exclusive implications of the Indo-Pacific, Ardern tried to redefine the term.Even if they indicate that they are aligned with America, Ardern and Mahuta maintain a degree of separation.
It is an approach with roots in the post-Cold War era. Although New Zealand has long maintained a security relationship with America, in a unipolar world it could still plausibly claim independence just by signaling some distance from its partner. But we now live in a bipolar world where China and America are playing a zero-sum game. Distance from America might alienate it; alignment with America can anger China.
Is “independence” possible given this tension? And if not, what do we do instead? These are important questions that require clear answers. But in New Zealand, public discussion — and government explanations — about foreign policy strategy remain vague and often contradictory. According to David Capie, director of the New Zealand Center for Strategic Studies, “there is no in-depth conversation about foreign and defense policy” in New Zealand.
That forces observers to read tea leaves (like our use of the term “Indo-Pacific”), risks misunderstanding and leaves room for more divisive voices to dominate.
Ardern emphasized the role of “transparency” in her speech last week – the importance of states being “honest about their foreign policy objectives and initiatives beyond their borders”. To address China’s challenge coherently, Ardern and Mahuta must channel this transparency themselves. The core diplomacy may be behind the scenes, but for New Zealand to navigate this new era of global turbulence, they need to be clearer about the larger foreign policy strategy they want to pursue.