• A New Zealand Voice in International Affairs

    New Zealand, as we all know, is a small country – not just in terms of our population and physical size, but in economic heft as well – and, from the viewpoint of the rest of the world, we are a long way away. There have even been instances when our very existence is forgotten by international map-makers.

    The danger for us is that we are not front of mind and are easily overlooked when decisions affecting us are made – that we are, in effect, no more than a cork bobbing on an ocean governed by currents and storms of which we have little knowledge and over which we have no control.

    This makes it all the more important that we should have a voice that is listened to in international forums, and that, when leaders overseas get together, we have a presence that is recognised and welcomed.

    A New Zealand Prime Minister, in other words, has responsibilities that go well beyond the domestic environment and faces problems in being heard on the international stage that are greater than those faced by most other world leaders.

    Our leaders have, accordingly, seen it as important that they should develop an International profile. In recent times, both Helen Clark and John Key have made their presence felt in international affairs – and Jacinda Ardern has been brilliantly successful in doing likewise.

    Her most recent foray, at the East Asia summit in Bangkok, has been capped with a resounding success. We have secured an updated trade agreement with China, our most important trading partner, and have helped to lay the groundwork for a wide-ranging multi-party trade agreement, embracing countries that account for about half of the world’s trade.

    Critics at home will of course complain that time spent overseas is wasted and is a distraction from pressing domestic problems, but these are views held only by the short-sighted and narrow-minded. The government does not grind to a halt when the Prime Minister is overseas – but only the Prime Minister can speak for our country when significant international meetings are held and decisions are taken that affect us directly.

    Nor is it the case that it is only when our own national interest is directly affected – as in the case of trade relations – that the Prime Minister should bother to attend International gatherings. New Zealand has an important interest in helping to shape the developing international agenda.

    On issues like climate change and the fight against terrorism, small countries are at least as much, if not more, at risk as our larger friends. New Zealand, having developed a voice that is listened to with attention and respect, can have a valuable role in using that voice to speak for and to champion other countries that have difficulty in being heard and whose fortunes are likely to suffer if damaging mistakes are not avoided.

    And, it is sadly the case that the Pacific is increasingly becoming an area of contention and tension between the great powers. We – and our smaller friends and neighbours – need to do all we can to avoid becoming collateral damage as the big boys push and shove each other.

    Our chances of surviving unscathed are much increased if the big players have become accustomed not only to the fact that we exist but also that we are worth listening to. It is very much in our interests that we have a Prime Minister who has earned the respect of her International colleagues and that she is able to show them that their views of issues and events are, on occasion, too narrow and self-focused.

    We can all feel a sense of pride as New Zealanders, if our small country is able to take its place as of right when matters of great significance are being discussed by the world’s leaders. And, we can all derive some comfort from the knowledge that our particular perspective will be brought to bear on issues that will affect the future of us all.

    Bryan Gould
    5 November 2019