Shakeup of NZ’s international relations seems likely

Winston Peters speaks at the 2019 University of Otago Foreign Policy School. PHOTO: GREGOR...
Winston Peters speaks at the 2019 University of Otago Foreign Policy School. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
The new government will need to hit the ground running on foreign affairs, writes Geoffrey Miller.

Determining New Zealand’s full response to the war in Gaza and the fallout in the wider Middle East will be the first major test for whoever takes the foreign minister’s role.

New Zealand has been run by a Labour caretaker administration since elections were held on October 14.

During the transition period, caretaker prime minister Chris Hipkins and outgoing foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta have respected the convention of saying as little as possible while waiting for their successors: when Labour has spoken out on foreign affairs, it has been after consultation with the National Party leader and soon-to-be prime minister, Christopher Luxon.

Luxon has characterised the new Middle East war as "sad and tragic on both sides" — a phrasing that reflects New Zealand’s overall balanced position towards the conflict.

One possible exception to the low-key approach was New Zealand’s decision to vote in favour of a resolution in the UN General Assembly that called for a "humanitarian truce" in Gaza.

Many of New Zealand’s closest Pacific and Western partners either abstained on the resolution (Australia, Canada and the UK) or opposed it altogether (such as the United States, Tonga and Fiji).

It seems likely New Zealand’s own vote in favour was decided by a narrow margin. Carolyn Schwalger, New Zealand’s ambassador to the UN, said New Zealand’s support came despite Wellington being "deeply disappointed" by the resolution’s failure to directly condemn Hamas. Luxon later largely echoed Schwalger in a media interview, stressing the need to "prioritise the protection of civilians", but condemning Hamas and emphasising Israel’s right to defend itself.

Still, New Zealand’s vote in favour suggests there is still life in the country’s "independent foreign policy", even as Wellington creeps closer to Washington at a broader level. The new government will decide what happens next.

New Zealand First is likely to play a crucial role in determining the shape of New Zealand’s international relations. Winston Peters has served as foreign minister twice before — but only under Labour-led governments.

Mr Peters is said to want the foreign minister’s job again, which would come as little surprise. Of course, the rumours could still prove to be incorrect. Now aged 78, Mr Peters may not want the burden of travel.

Other options include Judith Collins, a former National leader, and Gerry Brownlee. However, Mr Brownlee is a likely candidate for Speaker; Ms Collins easily has the experience for foreign affairs, having been in Parliament since 2002.

If she is not chosen, the defence portfolio would be a worthy alternative option, especially as New Zealand looks to make some major decisions on military spending.

Yet another option could be for Peters to claim the foreign minister job for his deputy, Shane Jones, who served as a roving "Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development" in the foreign ministry from 2014-17.

The position was somewhat controversially created for Jones by the then National-led government after Mr Jones quit as a Labour MP, before he later re-emerged as a key figure in New Zealand First.

Even if it passes up the foreign affairs portfolio, New Zealand First is likely to be influential and outspoken on international relations issues.

An "agree to disagree" clause in New Zealand First’s coalition agreement with Labour in 2017 prevented New Zealand First from being muzzled under usual collective Cabinet responsibility provisions.

Mr Peters’ past speeches provide some clues as to how he might respond to current developments. During his first term as foreign minister, Mr Peters observed at the UN shortly after Israel’s 32-day war with Hezbollah in 2006 that conflicts in the Middle East had largely been left to fester, resulting in "an unstable environment where extremism, injustice and despair flourish".

Peters told the UN General Assembly peacekeeping efforts — such as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon following the 2006 war — were a stopgap solution and would be "doomed to failure unless the underlying political and security issues are addressed".

More recently, as tensions between the US and Iran mounted, Mr Peters observed in a speech to the Otago Foreign Policy School in 2019 that it was in New Zealand’s interest to stop "flashpoints escalating" and commended Washington for avoiding "retaliatory strikes". The speech built on an earlier statement in which Peters called for "caution, restraint and common sense" from all involved.

A 2023 election campaign speech by Mr Peters dedicated to foreign affairs provides some wider insights into his foreign affairs and defence priorities.

Contrasting New Zealand with two other small states — Singapore and Ireland — Mr Peters argued New Zealand needed "highly active diplomacy", which in his view had been "shockingly not pursued with vigour" since 2020.

Mr Peters’ contrast with Singapore and Ireland also surfaced in a campaign interview, with some eviscerating criticism: "Ireland has two and a-half times more diplomats offshore, so does Singapore — maybe they know something about exporting and trade that we should be practising, rather than this eternal idiotic statement that New Zealand is ‘punching above its weight’."

As foreign minister, Mr Peters oversaw the opening of new diplomatic posts in Cairo (2007), Dublin (2018) and Stockholm (2008 and 2018 — the latter a reopening).

Ireland already has about 100 diplomatic missions globally — twice the number maintained by New Zealand.

Stepping up engagement in the Pacific is probably going to be the bigger long-term priority for New Zealand First,

and Mr Peters seems keen to pick up on the Pacific Reset policy he launched in March 2018.

In his September campaign speech, he recapitulated how as foreign minister he had sought to work more closely with Pacific countries themselves, as well as boosting engagement with the US and Japan — on top of the foreign aid and defence budget boosts.

But Mr Peters warned he was "seriously concerned that the momentum we started has fallen by the wayside since 2020".

The New Zealand First leader is now in a position to change that. Christopher Luxon needs Winston Peters to form a government, and a shakeup of New Zealand’s international relations seems likely.

 - University of Otago PhD candidate Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project’s geopolitical analyst.