How NZ can wield its soft power in dealings with China

By Terence O'Brien


The generally favourable reactions from beyond these shores to New Zealand’s Covid-19 response stands the country in good stead internationally. It embellishes its so-called soft power.


That is gratifying, although its soft power rests upon wider foundations than the pandemic response alone. It derives from NZ’s situation as a small, unthreatening, progressive democracy that has placed reconciliation at the heart of that democracy (the Treaty of Waitangi) while at the same time it strives to adjust to a multicultural future.


Overall, this task effectively constitutes a permanent rite of passage to fulfilled nationhood. The political, cultural and socio-economic challenges are real. Progress is sometimes controversial. Any complacency is entirely self-defeating.


Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta

As she continues, step by step, to articulate NZ foreign policy on her watch, it seems Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta is reflecting this evolving process. NZ differs obviously from larger democracies that possess lots of hard power but where, for example, racial injustice against indigenous and other peoples and cultures persists, alongside deep economic, cultural and political division. Soft power credentials are as a result harmed.


The value of soft power requires to be understood too in terms of the current and future state of the world. Smaller democracies have so far handled more effectively both the challenges of the Covid response and the toxic dangers of populism.


NZ travels internationally, for the most part, beneath the radar screens of the powerful. That is no disadvantage provided NZ diplomacy, including military diplomacy, is nimble and adaptable.


Possessing authentic global interests, NZ is obliged to play its part in support of international peace, reconciliation, and sustainable development. A small professional defence force is a national asset. Its use should always be dovetailed with foreign policy – in particular with NZ’s long-established support for the UN and the rule of international law.


Regrettably, our record of support for UN peacekeeping has slipped. That needs to be remedied. The decision by Ireland (another team of five million) to invest the cabinet portfolios of foreign minister and defence minister in one and the same person is interesting, and perhaps relevant here.


Soft power supplies insulation for independent foreign policy, to which successive NZ governments have laid claim. Even-handedness is an essential ingredient too – especially now, in a new and complex age of modern great-power rivalry where the US and China each struggle to adjust to China’s emergence.


Domestic actions regarding its Uyghur minority, and the ways in which sovereignty is being asserted over Hong Kong, serve to deny Beijing the degree of international respect which its phenomenal progress over the past 50 years might otherwise be expected to reinforce.


American policy, which aims to halt China’s rise by decoupling the two economies and by treating China as an overall existential threat to the US, amounts to stopping the clock and reverting to an international order that does not accommodate China. Both powers bear equivalent responsibility, particularly with respect to observance by each of international rules-based behaviour.


Former NZ diplomat Terence O'Brien

The insulation provided by soft power allows NZ to draw daylight from Five Eyes partners in relation to China, without fracturing traditional relationships when the national interest is judged to be better served by a different approach.


NZ soft power has provided insulation in the past. The introduction of non-nuclear policy in the 1980s sparked adamant opponents in Washington to favour strong retribution to teach NZ, and others, a sharp lesson.


Other wiser US heads prevailed. They were concerned lest the image of dire punishment of a small unthreatening country’s democratic choice would rebound on the US reputation and interests. The status of “friend but not ally” of the US which then emerged suited, and suits, NZ’s modern international circumstances.


The American academic Joseph Nye – who 30 years ago first popularised the concept of soft power in international relations – saw it very much as the adjunct to the hard power which America, of course, possesses in spades. Harnessed together, hard and soft power multiplied the US ability to persuade others to support its interests.


Nye did acknowledge that some larger European allies also possess soft power. The notion, however, that smaller democracies without hard power might also enjoy, or cultivate, soft power in ways which safeguard independent foreign policy exceeded his imagination.


Terence O’Brien is a former New Zealand diplomat and Senior Fellow & Founding Director, at VUW Centre for Strategic Studies.


This article was first published by the Dominion Post on 29 April 2021.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Diplosphere's stance.

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