Interests and values in international relations: Terence O'Brien discusses the mainsprings of New Zealand's foreign policy.

Author:O'Brien, Terence

Interests and values shape the foreign policies of most, if not all countries. The former relate to security, prosperity and well being; history, tradition, myth, cultural/religious background and ethnic make up shape the latter. Values-driven and interests-driven foreign relations are not alternative pathways for conducting world affairs. They are essential connections. Values-driven relations aim to transform political and social behaviour of others, while any changes so effected can affect bow interests are best served. New Zealand's interests and values once focused on an Atlantic-centred English speaking world. Today, sometimes awkwardly, interests have pushed it into seeking relations in areas far removed from the source of its values.


Foreign policy for all, or most, countries is shaped by interests and by values. Interests can usually be readily defined--security, prosperity and well being of the country and its people are the essential features. Values derive from history, tradition, myth, cultural/religious background and ethnic make-up. Values can influence the choice of partners that a country selects through foreign policy, but interests play the material part.

What a country is and seeks to be determines foreign policy. For much of the 20th century as New Zealand emerged hesitantly into the international arena, our interests and values reflected our perceived situation as a small distant extension of an Atlantic-centred English speaking world, whose influences upon New Zealand were paramount. This Atlantic worldview lay at the core of the so-called Western enlightenment, where secularism, rational thought and scientific achievement were conceived as basic values for human improvement. They were matched by a conviction, too, that cultural differences are essentially a surface manifestation that would disappear as part of human progress driven by knowledge and technology. (1) Material gain would be a yardstick of progress towards a better world.

It is seriously questionable whether human progress is, or should be, conceived as a universal, shared, single experience. Despite so-called economic globalisation, the world continues, after all, to be shaped by measurably different traditions of culture. Diversity reigns, as New Zealand knows from its own modern experience of seeking to fashion long-term relations in Asia, where interests drive New Zealand foreign policy, but where our values derive traditionally from elsewhere. We witness at first hand for ourselves how technology, ideas and economic models are employed differently and successfully in Asian countries with their distinct values. Asian economic success is undoubtedly creating aspirations amongst increasing numbers of Asian people for material advantage that is commensurate with that achieved in traditional Western industrial economies. But the idea that prosperous Asians will then 'grow more like us' is wishful thinking.

Identity of values remains something beyond shared material gain. The reputable American political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote twenty years ago that 'Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, and separation of church and state often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox cultures'. Huntington was here trying to justify his controversial assertion that the world is heading inexorably towards a 'clash of civilisations'. (2)


Superior virtue

In the Atlantic/European world a particular sense of superior virtue prevailed, according to which to be secular and enlightened is to be peaceful, and the rest of the world had only, therefore, to absorb Western knowledge and values to be enlightened and peaceful. But the 20th century produced two world wars of great savagery, a 40-year long Cold War based upon the grim threat of nuclear destruction and several cruel wars of decolonisation. These were 'wars of other people' into which distant New Zealand was drawn. They had their origins in rivalries and ambition amongst major countries of the Western enlightenment. Such wars emphatically exploded the claim to superior virtue by the enlightenment powers. But as we begin this new century the idea that the spread of Western values, and in particular the spread of democracy, will consolidate peace and goodwill globally persists in the capitals of powerful Western nations, mad amongst non-government agencies that are increasingly influential in the promotion of values internationally. Superior virtue now focuses on democratisation. We will come back to this.


The last 25 years or so have witnessed a resurgence of religion as a force in international affairs. Attempts by radical elements inside Islam to extend their control over the dominant religious and social belief system inside the Middle East have had worldwide repercussions. A clash between conservative and progressive forces inside religion is not confined to Islam alone. Similar struggles are evident within Christianity, the Jewish faith and the Orthodox churches, although levels of internal violence are much lower. Nonetheless, the global resurgence of religion alongside the forces of globalisation challenges modern diplomacy, peacemaking and international security. Resolving such religious conflict requires something much more than traditional hard-nosed calculations of national interest based on power, made by politicians, diplomats and military commanders. (3) Expertise for dealing with such conflict and instability does not now, therefore, reside with governments alone, if it ever did.

In the Middle East the internal struggle within Islam is compounded by international politics and in particular longstanding interference by powerful outsiders with the aim of imposing their version of order on the region. Supervision of the world's main source of oil, the overthrow of uncongenial regional leaders, the protection of favoured clients and of military bases, the suppression of insurgencies or vexatious regional separatism have motivated a succession of Western and other powers for over a century to interfere extensively in the Middle East. The United States is the latest in a long line of intruders that have employed lethal military force to secure their aims. It is self delusion to deny that the sorry record of prolonged intrusion is not a motivating cause (4) behind the internationalised version of...

To continue reading