Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Student's Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 3. March 19 1968
The UK Withdrawal
The UK Withdrawal
As British plans to withdraw militarily from Asia go ahead, the diplomatic air is rent with anguished cries of politicians (and others) discovering that the world really has changed in the last twenty years. And among the cries, there occasionally intrudes the idea that it may be necessary to reappraise our foreign policy.
The trouble is that if such reappraisal is left to the present leaders of this country, the results are grimly predictable. The magic formula runs: alliance with the U.S. plus regional defence groupings equals security.
Such a vision is comforting to the conservative mind, since it requires no fundamental rethinking of what New Zealand's foreign policy is all about, and no deviation from previously-charted courses. It is damaging to the future interests of New Zealand, because it perpetuates obsolete and unrealistic elements in our thinking on foreign policy. And it will probably prevail, because the level of public debate on foreign policy within New Zealand has not been sufficient to seriously challenge the old assumptions.
Having foretold gloom, I propose to clarify why I believe that certain elements in our foreign policy deserve to be dropped, and why New Zealand must move toward a more independent stance.
The notion of a malignant and expansionist Communism aiming at world domination in the classical sense provides government with convenient terms in which to justify its policies to the public. But once articulated and accepted, such a world view develops a logic of its own and becomes a major determinant of policy.
It does this both directly, by influencing decisionmakers in their interpretation of events, and indirectly, by limiting the range of politically-acceptable options open to government. We find ourselves as a nation unable to comprehend the nationalist/socialist revolutionary movements of South-east Asia except inflexibility, in terms of "Communist subversion". Since our conditioned reflex is to oppose this, we find ourselves among the forces of the counter-revolution, yet totally unaware of the significance of what we are doing.
It is clear then that the framework within which we explain the world must be changed. It is time, for example, that the public was treated to a sensible discussion of questions such as: what are the aims, real nature, and future of People's China; what are the revolutions of Asia all about, and do they in fact threaten us in any way; and is regional stability really promoted by propping up often-oppressive counter-revolutionary regimes?
A more sophisticated approach by government would clear the air for the introduction of new, more realistic policies, at the same time as it lessened our subservience to American interpretations of the world.
Then, we must consider the question of regional defence groupings, such as Seato and the new defence treaty recently proposed.
The first major difficulty with such groupings is that they are designed to force member countries into an automatic rather than a rational response to international crises. By joining them, we surrender a good deal of our freedom to deal with situations as they arise, and impose upon ourselves the moral sanctions implied in the phrase "welshing on our allies".
Linked with this loss of flexibility in areas where the treaty proves effective, is the danger that political miscalculation, blundering, or deliberate provocation by one member may drag others into an otherwise unjustifiable conflict.
The second disadvantage of such groups is that their relevance to the type of crises typical of modern Asia is minimal. "Collective defence" as a concept implies a threat from without directed against the members, i.e. embodies a world view of an external expansionist enemy bent on the destruction of members. In the face of nationalist/socialist uprisings within member states, other governments asked to intervene must either falsify the facts of the case to justify action under the treaty (as New Zealand has sought to do with Vietnam) or act outside the treaty.
If, then, collective defence is irrelevant to present political realities and detrimental to rational policymaking, why do we persist in thinking in terms of membership?
In the final analysis, it is clear, we are seeking security through participation; we believe that, in some way, we are paying for a form of insurance policy on our future. This has been the New Zealand government's ultimate defence of our present position on Asia—the need to embroil ourselves in America's current quarrels in order that at some future date she may defend us against some rather unspecified enemy.
That this view receives such wide acceptance in New Zealand indicates both the lack of sophisticated thinking on international affairs, and the hold of "historical precedent"—the Battle of the Coral Sea for example—on the public mind.
But the idea does not bear close examination. It assumes that New Zealand may come under military attack presumably through Asia, while the present international postures of several nations remain intact and existing treaties unshaken.
To put this another way: having made the dubious assumption that a unified, malignant (presumably Communist) force is seeking to conquer Asia, and the even more dubious asumption that having done so it would wish to continue through Australia and New Zealand, the theory states that in the face of such a total collapse of the U.S. position, pre-existing defence agreeements would remain unchanged. This is rather like taking out an insurance policy with a company to protect yourself against the chance of the same company going bankrupt.
In fact it is clear that should New Zealand be militarily threatened at any time in the future, the military and political situation in Asia and the South Pacific will have changed so drastically that any United States decision to protect us would rest on strategic considerations at the time, not the state of our insurance premiums.
The point may also be made here that in such a situation, we would stand far less chance of being attacked as an inoffensive, isolated and neutral nation than as an outpost of the retreating United States war machine.
From this discussion, I think, emerge four basic prescriptions for our foreign policy.
First, we must rethink our approach to the modern world and discard the myths which have blinded us for too long.
Second, we must clearly assert our freedom of action vis-a-vis the U.S.—the most obvious such action would be the unequivocal withdrawal from Vietnam which we must in any case perform to recover some moral stature as a nation.
Third, we must avoid regional alliances, in particular those which draw us into inflexible Cold War alignments.
And finally, to evolve and put into practice new concepts and policies, we need a leadership with some integrity, some guts, and some ideas—all regrettably rare commodities in the present political scene.