‘Fiercely Independent’: Aotearoa New Zealand and US Empire

New Zealanders often hear that we have a ‘fiercely held independent foreign policy’, as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told NATO last year. Any suspicion of the irony of this statement, addressed as it was to a military alliance with a history of orchestrating regime change in countries displaying a little too much independence, was surely dispelled when former Prime Minister Helen Clark tweeted, ‘I once attended meeting on Afghanistan w/ NATO leaders. Can be consistent with maintaining independent foreign policy’. Supporting this view, prominent international relations expert Robert Patman rejected the notion that Ardern’s invitation to the NATO leaders’ summit in Madrid—the first such invitation to a New Zealand prime minister—revealed a closer relationship between Aotearoa New Zealand and the United States.

Despite such assurances, however, the Labour government’s support for dangerous US-NATO policy in Ukraine belies the fantasy of a fiercely held independent foreign policy; in fact, contrary to Clark’s tweet, Aotearoa New Zealand’s current alignment with NATO is consistent with our record of rejecting an independent position to assist the US-led ‘rules- based international order’, backed up by military aggression.

In case we were in any doubt about where the Labour government stands regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade webpage outlining its response—including military support and the country’s first ever unilateral sanctions—displays the assertion that ‘Aotearoa New Zealand condemns, unequivocally, the unprovoked and illegal attack by Russia on Ukraine’, thereby repeating the propaganda claim, ubiquitous in Western media, that US-NATO policy played no role in provoking Putin’s illegal invasion. One of the problems with this claim is that it contradicts the view of, among a long list of other officials, the current CIA director, who as ambassador to Russia in 2008 described the possibility of ‘Ukrainian entry into NATO’ as ‘the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin)’. He continued, ‘I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.’

New Zealanders who respond to this argument with the popular assertion that each country has the right to decide on its own security arrangements need only recall our own response to China’s recent security pact with Solomon Islands—a country not exactly on our border—which Ardern called ‘gravely concerning’. Echoing this sentiment two months later, respected New Zealand journalist Bernard Hickey wrote in a comment on his Substack that ‘we should get as much US military presence as we possibly can on our shores, and also arm ourselves to the teeth with drones, missiles, maritime surveillance and strike forces … China is a truly dangerous, ugly and malign force in our world’. The Sinophobia was more intense across the Tasman, with Australia’s then Prime Minister Scott Morrison stating that a Chinese military base in Solomon Islands would be a ‘red line’ for Australia and the United States—i.e., that it would elicit a military response. The US likewise refused to rule out military action.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s support for US-NATO policy in Ukraine was also evident in its announcement in December of sanctions against Iran for supplying military drones to Russia. As Scott Horton details in his book Enough already, Iran has been a favourite victim of the US ever since a popular revolution overthrew its US-installed dictatorship in 1979. So our decision to use sanctions against Iran while simultaneously failing to respond to comparable (and much worse) actions committed by the US and its allies suggests that these sanctions do not stem from the empathetic question ‘What if it was us?’, as Ardern claimed in her address to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but from precisely the influence she rejected: ‘diplomatic ties’, or, in Nicky Hager’s words, ‘selective morality’. Hager explains this in Other People’s Wars: ‘when our allies or their friends do wrong, we say nothing. When our allies’ enemies do wrong, we are extravagant in our condemnation’. What other explanation is there for New Zealand’s decision not also to apply sanctions against the United Kingdom for selling billions of pounds’ worth of military drones and other arms to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that have been used to attack Yemen, killing thousands of civilians and helping to create ‘the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe’? While Western governments like New Zealand’s are right to criticise Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a violation of the United Nations Charter, they cannot expect these criticisms to be taken seriously by the rest of the world, much of which is all too familiar with such crimes—only committed by those countries now passionately denouncing Russia.

Indeed, when engaging in this popular pastime, Kiwis should remember that it was only in 2021 that the US and NATO purportedly withdrew from Afghanistan after their illegal (i.e., unauthorised by the UN) and genuinely unprovoked 20-year occupation of that country, which was supported, as Hager reports, by New Zealand intelligence officers and the SAS (those who take exception to the word ‘unprovoked’ here should ask themselves whether they agree with President George W. Bush that a country that harbours terrorists is as guilty as the terrorists themselves. If no, they are against the invasion of Afghanistan, regardless of how much they detest the Taliban, which was not responsible for 9/11. If yes, then as Noam Chomsky pointed out, they would also have supported the UK in bombing the US for harbouring members of the IRA). Furthermore, for a country that advocates holding Russia to account for its war crimes through the International Criminal Court, New Zealand has proven hesitant to investigate its own: when details emerged about NZSAS war crimes in Afghanistan, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, New Zealand Defence Force, and intelligence agencies attempted to suppress and deny them.

Then there’s the completely unjustifiable—even for many defenders of the invasion of Afghanistan—US-led invasion of Iraq, which Aotearoa New Zealand also supported militarily despite 86 per cent of the population opposing the war unless it was approved by the UN (which it was not). If any example demonstrates the extent to which New Zealand’s foreign policy falls short of being fiercely independent, it’s the fact that Helen Clark refused to support the war but New Zealand’s armed forces joined it anyway. Against government orders to participate only in Operation Enduring Freedom, Hager reports, the New Zealand Navy and Air Force supported US attacks on Iraq from the Persian Gulf. This included collecting intelligence, escorting US military supply ships that were transporting arms and protecting US aircraft carriers as their jets launched attacks on places like Fallujah, where, following the US’s use of depleted uranium and white phosphorous munitions, there have been sharp increases in congenital birth defects, infertility and cancer, with far greater incidence rates than those measured in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Considering Aotearoa New Zealand’s participation in these crimes, when evaluating Russia’s actions we should indeed ask ourselves, like Ardern, ‘What if it was us?’ What if it was us supporting atrocities in Ukraine, as we have done elsewhere? Doing so would perhaps foster the humility required to accept that Russia’s security concerns are much like our own, and from this position to consider rationally how Aotearoa New Zealand could assist steps towards de-escalation. A good starting point in this regard would be for new prime minister Chris Hipkins to end our support for the US-NATO policy of prolonging the conflict in order to weaken Russia, and instead advocate for a diplomatic settlement, which is likely to conclude the war regardless either before or after yet more lives are lost, notwithstanding the ever-present possibility of nuclear catastrophe.

The Rules-Based Order

Clinton Fernandes, Sep 2021

Military historians are well aware that Australian governments have not gone to war for sentimental reasons or because they were duped. The organising principle of Australian foreign policy is to remain on the winning side of a worldwide confrontation between the empire and the lands dominated by it. 

About the author

Samuel Hume

Samuel Hume is a New Zealand teacher living in London.

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