Matthew Hooton: NZ’s anti-nuclear law threatens our security and prosperity


There is no such thing as an independent foreign policy. It is a simple category mistake.

It is also a slogan our politicians use when our international relations are going badly, whether on climate change and environmental policy, trade access or national security. Expect to hear Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern use it a lot in the months ahead.

As Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta put it in her inaugural speech to the diplomatic corps at Waitangi in February, foreign policy is in fact about “relationships, relationships, relationships — he tangata te mea nui”.

Mahuta said relationships were “the building blocks for our international connections” and highlighted most strongly that with Australia, declaring it “critical for New Zealand’s prosperity and security”.

“Australia,” she explained, “is our only formal ally and an indispensable partner across the breadth of our international interests.”

Mahuta defined New Zealand’s core interests as:

• an international rules-based order, giving all countries a voice and providing frameworks that promote stability;
• keeping New Zealanders safe and promoting regional stability;
• international conditions and connections that aid our prosperity, including supply chain resilience;
• global action on sustainability issues such as climate change, where solutions depend on international co-operation.

She described New Zealand’s values as:

• manaaki — kindness or the reciprocity of goodwill;
• whanaunga — our connectedness or shared sense of humanity;
• mahi tahi and kotahitanga — collective benefits and shared aspiration;
• kaitiaki — protectors and stewards of our intergenerational wellbeing.

None of these interests or values can be advanced “independently” but only interdependently, as evidenced once specifics are added.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw won’t advocate an independent stance in Glasgow in November.

His climate-change policies necessarily depend on the expectations and initiatives of others and in turn are designed to influence their commitments to the cause.

Trade Minister Damien O’Connor won’t deal with China’s and hopefully the US’s applications to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership without considering the perspectives of the other 10 members — or that China’s timing can only be interpreted as a response to the new Australia-UK-US military alliance (Aukus).

Likewise, when O’Connor, Mahuta and Ardern chair the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation meetings in November, the agenda will reflect the priorities of all 21 members. That doesn’t mean New Zealand doesn’t gain from taking our turn as chair.

Similarly, O’Connor’s free-trade negotiations with the UK and EU aren’t being conducted independently from the context of Brexit, the details of the draft UK-Australia deal and news US-UK trade talks are failing. He will use those realities to New Zealand’s advantage. Progress with the UK will help secure gains from the EU, and vice versa.

Everybody accepts this, which makes it absurd that politicians use “independent foreign policy” most flagrantly when referring to the area in which New Zealand is least able to act “independently”, defence and national security.

Neither New Zealand nor Australia could defend itself from a determined invasion attempt by a great power. New Zealand struggles to oversee our 4 million sqkm Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and 30m sq km search and rescue region (SRR), covering a twelfth of the world’s oceans.

Invasion was last a proximate risk in the 1940s, when Australia and New Zealand were saved from Japan and its allies by the US. The long peace among great powers since is a historical anomaly sustained only by the nuclear deterrent.

New Zealand’s collective memory of the US’s role as saviour is mostly around tales of US marines seducing young Kiwi women with nylon stockings. Memories of ships being sunk by German U-boats operating in New Zealand waters have faded.

In contrast, Australians remember acutely the 100-plus Japanese aerial attacks against their mainland through 1942 and 1943, killing hundreds of people in Darwin and Broome, and Japanese submarines sinking the Kuttabul in Sydney Harbour, killing 21 naval ratings.

If you think Australians should get over this, reflect on the grudge we still hold against the French for bombing the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 — or even against Australia for the underarm incident 40 years ago.

New Zealand has been drifting away from collective security since we took anti-nuclearism to an extreme by enshrining it in legislation, a move not followed by any other country. Antinuclearism was the big thing in the 1980s, in the way climate change is today, but without the science. It was entirely about feelz.

Some still bizarrely perceive a connection between David Lange’s grandstanding and Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev ending the Cold War. In reality, Reagan’s massive nuclear build-up and strategic defence initiative brought Gorbachev to the table.

Lange wasn’t alone in riding anti-nuclearism to power in 1984. Bob Hawke’s Australian Labor Party made similar promises in 1983. But he managed the diplomacy more astutely than Lange, protecting Australia’s US security guarantee.

As global events have unfolded, technology became safer and attitudes evolved, Labor now strongly backs the new Aukus alliance, which includes the Australian Navy becoming nuclear-powered.

No such maturity has occurred here. New Zealand remains committed not just to antinuclearism but to the 1987 legislation, despite the latter being the real problem. Australia, Japan and Denmark all remained formal US allies despite their nuclear-free policies.

They just chose not to rub the Americans’ noses in it with legislation and global grandstanding.

The decades ahead will be the most dangerous since World War II. All Mahuta’s core interests from February are under threat — plus New Zealand’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and thus the values she outlined.

Since Lange, New Zealand has drifted away from the only powers who can both guarantee our security and broadly share our values, however imperfectly. Australia is our last ally, but Ardern confirms its most important military assets will be banned from our waters.

Ironically, given her own “nuclear-free moment” of climate change, Ardern plans that our maritime vessels patrolling our EEZ and SRR will never be powered by clean, green nuclear power but permanently by climate-polluting diesel and gas — unless she thinks solar power, windmills or sails are solutions for 21st century navies.

As we have distanced ourselves from Australia, the US, the UK and their Indo-Pacific and North Atlantic allies, we have identified more with the Pacific. We may derive pride from being the largest islands in Polynesia rather than the smallest partner in Five Eyes, from which we are being progressively excluded. We may even have something like the “independence” we apparently crave.

But our Pacific friends cannot offer us security or economic prosperity, or influence the global climate.

The path on which we remain will make us poorer, powerless and vulnerable to economic or military colonisation from our northwest.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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