Opportunities for the future: Gray Southon discusses New Zealand experiences in collective and common security and calls for a strategy of respectful engagement.

AuthorSouthon, Gray

New Zealand's experience in working with a wide range of countries in a variety of circumstances has provided the capacity to pursue a strategy of common security based on enhancing respectful relationships throughout the international community. This strategy could involve actors throughout government, business, community and non-governmental organisations as well as the traditional security services. It would be expected to have substantial benefits by enhancing our standing internationally, enriching our society domestically and building in resilience throughout. It would require a major initiative and significant changes in thinking, but would be consistent with many of our national values.


New Zealand's security history has been characterised by working co-operatively with other nations. The nature of these efforts has changed over the years in scope and style, from collective security within the British Empire, fighting military campaigns, to common security within the United Nations, banning nuclear weapons. These efforts have served to develop a capacity for working with a variety of other countries in pursuing many types of goals. In doing this, New Zealand has gained a reputation for being independent, practical and fair-minded. It has developed a broad portfolio of constructive relationships, resulting in a common perception that it has no enemies. Thus New Zealand is placed in a good position to address a wide range of security challenges in co-operation with other nations.

"This situation opens up the possibility of developing a stronger security strategy based on a more extensive, co-ordinated society-wide engagement with other nations aimed at comprehensive and respectful exchanges. This strategy would involve enhancing many of the current activities engaging other countries, as well as optimising the role of the more established activities, particularly diplomacy and military.

National security is the fundamental expectation of the nation state and a major factor in international relations and national self image. It is usually the main justification for a military establishment. New Zealand is a small country in a remote part of the world. This presents it with particular challenges, to which it has responded in a variety of ways, often taking quite distinctive initiatives. While New Zealand maintains traditional military associations and alliances to provide collective security, it also has broadly based trading relationships and strong diplomatic programmes through multilateral organisations representing common security initiatives that at times have been at odds with the military links. We need to consider what strategies best serve our long-term security interests.

New Zealand has long had a history of pursuing its security through working with other countries, developing relationships that can be trusted and making appropriate contributions to ensure reciprocal support. The British Empire was originally the basis of our collective security and we made our contributions in the South African War and the world wars. We recognised that we were a small part of the picture, but we took on our roles bravely and distinguished ourselves by our effectiveness. Important characteristics were our pragmatic focus on results and our readiness to bend the rules if necessary.

Alongside these military contributions, we took a broader diplomatic approach to common security in contributing to the formation of the League of Nations. This took us beyond the confines of the empire, adopting the role of an independent nation, which we were not at the time. Nevertheless, we fought hard in that forum for what we considered as just outcomes, including the self-determination of colonial territories, which may not have been consistent with the interests of our colonial masters. When the League failed to curb the threat of Hider's Germany, we resorted to armed action once more and contributed to the Allied defence of the 'Free World'. With our armed forces fighting in the European theatres, we had to rely on a relatively new ally, the United States, for protection from the Japanese forces.

Changing alliances

As global power structures shifted, our alliances changed, placing a much greater emphasis on the United States and Australia in the form of the 1951 ANZUS agreement. At the same time, we continued our broader commitment to collective global security through the development of the United Nations and its programmes, particularly human rights. In doing so, we took principled positions against the interests of our close allies in opposing the Security Council veto and promoting decolonisation. We took these positions in the belief that they were in the broader international interest.

Our commitment to working with others was enhanced and refined by the work of Prime Minister Norman Kirk, who expanded our connections around Asia and Africa. He also distanced us from US policy, ended our last connection to the Vietnam War and protested nuclear testing in the Pacific. The antinuclear theme was continued by Prime Minister David Lange, whose rejection of visits by potentially nuclear-armed ships once again placed New Zealand against the interests of our allies for what we believed was the common good. Such a principled stance was further demonstrated in our cautious approach to the Afghanistan invasion in 2001 and refusal to participate in the following war in Iraq.

These positions were, in general, supported by New Zealanders and stood us in good stead in our subsequent endeavours in diplomacy and trade. Consequentially, New Zealand has been able to develop successful political and...

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