A wise person once said that “If you do not learn the lessons of history, you are condemned to repeat the mistakes of history”. This provides a convenient point of departure to look at some lessons as they apply to some current global events and relate these to conduct by NZ of its international relations. It is important to emphasise that understanding lessons of history does not necessarily make the task of resolving problems any easier. One lesson is that nothing ever works out quite as countries intend or expect.
The big context for today’s international relations is the modern globalisation of our planet, driven by an exhilarating revolution in the technologies of communication that shrinks time and distance everywhere; creates new opportunities as well as dangers; and is pulling countries closer together and pushing them further apart virtually at one and the same time. The need to understand rapid and extensive international change is indispensable for NZ. Globalisation is not making people or countries more alike one another despite fondest expectations that an ideal blend of democracy and of capitalism would spread as a universal model for world security and prosperity. Right now the resurgence of religion in the Islamic world and beyond, is actually challenging what it means to be modern and is changing the nature of international security, peacemaking and diplomacy. So here begins the first lesson.
World attention is transfixed by the appalling violence and cruelty in the Middle East committed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Their unconscionable murderous actions in Syria and Iraq are playing out in the midst of deeply complex and longstanding regional, tribal and religious antagonisms across the area which defy ready understanding let alone resolution by outsiders. We are in the eye of a storm and a particularly hideous episode in the long history of Middle Eastern turmoil.
It is a fair claim that, historically,no other region in the world has sustained greater prolonged external interference than the Middle East. Powerful outsiders have striven variously to assert their interests - involving imperial conquest, seizure of strategic gateways, installation of permanent military bases and control over extensive sources of oil. At various times these outsiders cultivated and armed surrogates (both governments and jihadists), overthrew uncongenial governments, and redrew boundary lines. America’s present regional preeminence is only the latest in a long line of interlopers. Twice in the 20th century the region became embroiled in world wars - the first of their kind in history - sparked by animosity and miscalculation amongst powerful outsiders themselves. NZ was twice implicated.Our military experience helped shape a NZ sense of national identity. We are rightly proud of our effort as our present one hundred year commemoration affirms. Yet at the bottom line our involvements then and since, amount to a contribution, within our means, to help pull chestnuts from a fire ignited and perpetuated for the most part by the dogged ambitions inside the Middle East of major powers from beyond the region.
A growing sense of Arab nationalism and a deep sense of grievance has been a product of this all pervasive external interference. Western encroachment sharpened a challenge to the influence and culture of Islam which is caught up now in precarious internal hostility between progressive religious forces that encourage adaptation and enquiry, and conservative forces that insist upon narrower interpretation, traditions and ritual. Such internal religious strain is not unique to Islam. It is apparent within Christianity although without the same turmoil. But in the Middle East the combination of political resentment and religious ferment provides essential background to all that has unfolded, and is still unfolding - particularly the rise of modern version of radical Islamic militancy with its terrorist methods.
The threshold years of the 21st century have been fatefully permeated by the 9/11 al Qaeda terrorist attacks upon the US, which shook the world, punctured America’s sense of impregnability and has produced a continuous cascade of war fighting in the wider Middle East. Inside key western governments (US, UK etc.) the explanations for 9/11 were identified as irrational Islamic violence driven by weakness, disillusionment and envious resentment at western success that has eclipsed Islam which had once been at the forefront of civilisation and achievement. The idea that western policies in the Middle East might actually also provide the real circumstantial explanation for what was occurring was not, and is not, seriously acknowledged. There was and is here some dangerous self deception as we now confront the latest manifestation with ISIL and its hideous behaviour which defies basic Islamic teaching about justifiable war; and is designed to redraw the map of the Middle East by creating an entirely new Islamic religious state so-called caliphate. ISIL is condemned by moderate Muslims and by leaders of Christianity alike.
Terrorism is not new. It is as old as warfare itself and is the classic tactic of the weak against the strong. The dynamics of globalisation have materially extended its potential to reach across borders although ISIL’s principal goal is to draw new borders. From the outset the US chose not to view 9/11 as hideously criminal behaviour to be confronted intensively and collectively along with others by enhanced methods of prevention, but as an act of war to be answered in its turn by war. War against a tactic as distinct from a hostile government or nation is uncommon. Military invasion, clandestine cross border destruction, assassinations, torture, and imprisonment without trial became hallmarks of a response in which NATO allies and others joined at America’s bidding.
While Al Qaeda was surely degraded as the result, the collateral damage inflicted upon civilian populations and infrastructure by air and ground attacks further radicalised Islamic militancy and fertilized more terrorism including in North Africa. The hideous behaviour of ISIL is a desolate consequence. Gruesome executions blazoned abroad are intended as ‘pay back’ for collateral damage from America’s ‘war on terror.’ It seems certain the latest chapter of response involving air strikes on Iraq and Syria to eliminate ISIL will produce yet more collateral damage. US military leaders moreover forecast prolonged conflict. A relentless downward spiral of into an abyss of mutual reprisals is in prospect.
We are now witnessing a well resourced insurgency employing ever more brutal terrorist methods alongside sophisticated propaganda through media, surpassing that of al Qaeda which has, interestingly,publicly criticised ISIL . The military purpose of the latest countermeasures is to eliminate ISIL by force. But how far air power alone can prevail, is dubious. A ground attack on the other hand would run a calamitous risk of fuelling , even inadvertently, outright war between the different Islamic traditions - Sunni and Shia - and/or portrayal by media savvy ISIS as a ‘West versus Islam’ fight to the last ditch. Such eventuality would resonate in those Asian countries with sizeable Muslim populations (India, Indonesia, Malaysia ) in a region where NZ interests are more directly engaged than the Middle East . The excruciating outcome of the Afghanistan invasion, the murderous results of the earlier 2003 intervention in Iraq (from which NZ wisely absented itself) , sheer chaos after the military effort in Libya, and grave destabilisation inside Yemen are premonitions for what now to expect. Nonetheless the evidence that foreign sympathisers are volunteering for conflict alongside ISIL and then returning to their homeland as jihadist criminals, is a serious concern especially for those outside governments (the US, Britain, Australia etc.) who have themselves suffered from Islamic terrorism and are disposed now to eliminate ISIL militarily.
No government can ignore the savagery of ISIL behaviour. For governments like NZ it is important that the international legitimacy of any joint action be preserved to the extent possible through responses endorsed at the UN. But in confronting this cruel religious militancy, basic political sources of Arab and Muslim grievance cannot be ignored. Iran’s place in the regional scheme of things must, for example, be fully acknowledged by inclusion in any blueprint aimed to to halt the present regional disintegration. Major powers must genuinely pursue nuclear disarmament in the region that includes Israel not just Iran. Equivalent pressures must be applied upon both Israel and the Palestinians to resolve their deep divisions and the US must therefore lift its veto which permanently blocks UNSC ruling on the issue. Saudi Arabia must be pressured to halt funding of favoured insurgent Muslim elements throughout the region. Egypt where a democratically elected Muslim government was overthrown by military force which throttled the so-called Arab Spring, must be pressured to moderate its oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The sale and provision of sophisticated foreign weaponry to favoured regional governments by major powers must be curbed.
There is much more turbulent water to pass beneath this bridge as the US strives to rally international support to eliminate ISIL. Given the realities of NZ actual military capacity any practical contribution to aerial attack does not exist. Hard on the heels of the prolonged commitment to a still derelict Afghanistan by our SAS forces, NZ should not again so soon offer SAS involvement to an open-ended conflict. Our position should be framed around ready implementation within the framework of our own law, of all UNSC decisions to curb ISIL related people movements. An undertaking to assist with diplomatic intercession and eventual post conflict rehabilitation and restoration in the region should be confirmed, while we continue to express strongest disapproval of ISIL methods. (Should NZ win a non-permanent UNSC seat we shall need rigorously to weigh the case for the best form of a NZ contribution.)
Whilst this latest virulent chapter in Middle East crisis entails ramifications that extend beyond the geographical boundaries of the region, the crisis in Ukraine involving Russia with NATO governments, is more decidedly an Atlantic regional affair where the lesson of history testifies that responsibility for present tensions lies equivalently on all sides. Despite voluminous propaganda from every quarter, there is no no monopoly of virtue by Ukraine, by NATO, by the US , or by Russia.
The principal lesson here is that a major opportunity was let slip nearly 25 years ago when the Cold War ended, to create foundations for stable regional order in wider Europe. At that time the Moscow led military alliance , the Warsaw Pact, simply evaporated as military alliances historically do when the conflict for which they were first formed, terminates. Amongst Atlantic governments however the ultimate decision was nonetheless to retain NATO as a permanent military pact with its offensive doctrine of first strike, to extend membership to countries up to Russia’s perimeter and to broaden its mandate (including to the Middle East) as an instrument of international security. This did not conform with any historical precedent . An enfeebled Russia was in no condition to object although throughout the 1990s it protested. Those decisions were taken by NATO in the name of the national security interests of member governments. Those interests in effect trumped Russia’s national security interests which include, reasonably enough, concern about what happens in and to its immediate next door neighbour - Ukraine. In sum NATO’s policy was a provocation of Russia.
It is estimated that the US spent $5 billion over 20 years to help spread western values and democracy inside Ukraine as part of a strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit. Eventual NATO membership for Ukraine was America’s preference but the idea was soft-pedalled in the face Moscow’s strong objections, while the EU dangled the prospect of economic partnership for Ukraine. In mid- February 2014 both Europe and the US backed the overthrow in Kiev of the democratically elected but controversial Ukrainian President which Mr Putin described, justifiably , as a coup, and which triggered the present saga of instability. Russia has subsequently applied massive pressure upon Ukraine including armed support for the large Russian speaking part of the population. The seizure of Crimea and its naval port where Russia has had a presence for well over 100 years, was condemned widely as a violation of Ukrainian national sovereignty. For NZ as small country deeply attached to the rule of law in international affairs, violation of national sovereignty is a serious transgression. But such violations have unfortunately become common place in the Middle East as part of the US led war on terrorism and this complicates claims to the moral high ground over Ukraine.
The Ukraine crisis gives forth the audible sound therefore of pigeon’s coming home to roost. Fears however that we are witnessing a rebirth of Cold War which dominated over 40 years of the old century, or that Putin is behaving like Adolf Hitler prior to World War Two, are exaggerated. The international context and Russia’s place within it have changed profoundly. Although Washington, London, Brussels etc. claim to be speaking for the ‘international community’ over Ukraine, NZ needs to keep its powder dry when assessing what concrete steps it should take to signal its position in the matter of, say, economic sanctions or other retribution against Russia. The dispute involves serious issues of principle but it is essentially a regional problem for responsible Atlantic powers. NZ has itself other priorities in Asia Pacific where change is reshaping the balance of NZ interests profoundly; and we confront foreign policy challenges that exceed all previous NZ external experience. This brings us to a third segment of our lessons from history.
Asia & the Pacific
Over the past 35 years the countries of East Asia have achieved a rate of economic advance unequalled in modern history - it took the countries of western Europe over 100 years to accomplish equivalent progress. Asian governments grasped the opportunities offered by economic globalisation, displaying resilience, adaptability and pragmatism, to accomplish transformation.It is rash of course to generalise about such a vast and diverse region and progress has not been uniform. The strain on resources and upon the environment (particularly in China) is acute. Setbacks have occurred and will no doubt recur. But the trajectory is undeniable and NZ interests have been and are being, reshaped. Six of NZ’s top eight export markets are now in East Asia. The political and diplomatic relationships which are necessary to secure and underpin this commercial reality involve partnerships with countries whose history, culture and experience are very different from NZ’s own. We are moving emphatically away from the international relations ‘comfort zone’ that NZ occupied for a sizeable part of the 20th century involving close dependency on distant Atlantic powers for our prosperity and security. Relationships with traditional partners remain important but they do not trump our widening and deepening interests in East Asia.
The task of balancing our various relationships provides a supreme test for the independent NZ foreign policy which successive governments in Wellington have blithely asserted over the years. Let us look briefly take three examples:-
China/US; The affinity of the relationship between China and the US will profoundly influence both regional and global well being. As a friend but not formal ally NZ has productive relations with both countries . We want and need to avoid taking sides if or when the two goliaths disagree and seek support from friends for their respective positions. China and the US are deeply connected economically but it seems have not conclusively decided whether they are destined to be strategic partners or rivals. China seeks regional primacy based upon its significant accomplishments which include supplying the engine power for regional economic success . Japan with American encouragement, is however concerned to contest the regional leadership space. The US is committed itself to revitalising American global leadership and extending yet further its political, economic and military role in East Asia as part of a renewed Asia Pacific priority. Even the most powerful countries can however only keep so many balls in the air at one time and the serious distractions in the Middle East and Ukraine, could diminish vitally necessary American discernment and judgement involved with its China relationship. NZ must hope not, and in the meantime carefully avoid side-taking between Beijing and Washington as it continues to nurture its Asian connexions.
China & Regional Relationships; Given its size and potential modern China needs continuously to reassure regional neighbours of its peaceable intentions. While many have centuries long experience of existing in China’s immense shadow, some are sceptical about Chinese modern intentions and have hedged their bets by expanding military ties with the US which has itself initiated renovation of such ties. Sovereignty disputes between China and a raft of its neighbours over small islands and rocks in the China Sea, including countries with whom NZ has carefully cultivated ties like Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, presently pose a delicate dilemma for Wellington policy makers. NZ has actively pursued trade and economic connexions with countries throughout East Asia whose prosperity owes much to China’s accomplishments. NZ has involved itself in various regional institutions whose collective purpose is to bolster cooperation, prosperity and stability. The equilibrium of this dedicated fifty year NZ foreign policy effort will be disturbed to the extent that East Asian regional countries themselves wrangle and part company. Here again NZ obviously does not want to choose sides nor do we want other more powerful outside countries to choose for us. The tests for our foreign policy will be genuine and permanent.
NZ/Australia; The closeness of the trans-Tasman connexion does not need to be emphasised. NZ retains real interest in the success and effectiveness of Australia’s foreign policy although the reverse is hardly as true. Shared interest, values, geography and world view are demonstrable. This does not obviate differences of perception that occur because of the respective size, resource endowments, ambitions and external influence of each partner. Australia is confident in an international position of ‘middle level power’ with strong American links that are perceived to bestow prestige as well as protection, and enhance Australia’s voice and influence in Asia/Pacific. It seems prepared to bear significant additional costs in military expenditure that derive from its paramount US relationship and preserves a tendency to share more negative American security assessments about threats to peace, and to changes in the international order of things.
NZ foreign policy is grounded in a small country tradition that emphasises sovereign equality between all states irrespective of size or power, supports the rule of international law, favours cooperative as much as competitive management of security. As a genuine world trader where the 20th century lesson of history was that diversity amongst NZ economic dependencies is essential to reduce economic vulnerability, and requires therefore a multi-dimensional foreign policy to achieve, sustain and justify commercial opportunity. Australia’s economic and trade dependency upon China measurably exceeds that of NZ . Chinese insistent demand for Australian industrial raw materials allows, paradoxically, Australia to indulge in more forthright criticism of Chinese policies and prompts closer Australian military partnership with Japan, an avowed contender with China for regional eminence. All of this reinforces an obvious lesson that requires discerning independent NZ judgement about how and where to position the country to best advantage in the ebb and flow of 21st century Asia/Pacific.
Finally one last lesson from the 20th century is this planet’s indispensable need for an institution with universal membership to underpin collective efforts to enhance peace, prosperity, wellbeing and individual freedoms.Thanks to American energy and foresight the UN system established in 1945 was an experiment unequalled in history.It conferred upon small countries like NZ an opportunity to share in devising rules, norms and practices that influence international behaviour for a better world. Seventy years onwards the UN system now confronts however a genuine crisis of relevance. It is diminished by inherent deficiencies in the system and in its management, plus diminishing commitment by key founder members who are disillusioned by the fact that they are less able to command the system as they once did in its formative years. Its multiple achievements in fostering international cooperation in politics, economics, trade, development, science, technology, communications and other domains are now weakened by its shortcomings and threatened by membership indifference. Any idea however that we can and should collectively dispense with UN system and invent a replacement is a complete pipe dream. Genuine reform involving new operating methods and political recommitment by all governments in particular the large newly emergent economies - China, Brazil, India, Indonesia and the like - as well as the US and traditional powers, is indispensable, if principled rules based international behaviour is to effectively drive the 21st century.