When New Zealand recently won a United Nations ballot for a two-year seat on its Security Council by a decisive 145 out of 193 votes it was an occasion for much, well-justified celebration.
This blog will give some context as to how this seat was won, and suggest how the hard work that went into the 10 year campaign for it might be turned to greatest account and create an enduring legacy.
The win and how it came about were refreshingly framed by New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key and its ambassador to the United Nations, former National Party Deputy Prime Minister Jim McLay. This contest has stimulated the country to clarify its most useful and valued diplomatic strengths and indeed its international identity.
Prime Minister John Key explained the main focus of its campaign in terms of New Zealand being an honest broker. He said that New Zealand as a small country
just can’t write out cheques to get ourselves on the Security Council… [So] We just put on display the credentials of New Zealand, which is a country that’s seen as an honest broker, someone that stands up for what’s right.
NZ represents small states: Giving more context to this brokering role, he also emphasised how New Zealand, as a small country, would represent other small countries’ perspectives: “Our win proves small countries have a role to play at the UN and we are determined to represent the perspective of small states at the Security Council.”
NZ’s independence valued & why: Interviewed on Radio New Zealand very shortly after the seat was won New Zealand’s ambassador to the UN Jim McLay emphasised New Zealand’s independence, noting three points about it.
1. Nonalignment: First, he noted how New Zealand’s lack of alignment gave it flexibility to work well with anyone in independent and objective ways: “We work with all the members and blocks, but we aren’t a member of any one of them, and that independence is widely valued in the UN.”
2. NZ without borders lacks baggage: Jim McLay further spelled out how members came to see New Zealand independence as useful:
People were saying to us – and these are not our lines – that ‘we want you on the Security Council because you don’t have any baggage, you don’t have any border disputes, you don’t have [the] issues of other countries, we want you on the Security Council because of your independence and objectivity.
In other words, New Zealand’s remote, isolated (antipodean) geographic position is seen in the United Nations as situating it well to bring an outside and independent, or what could be called a neutral perspective to their problems with one another.
3. NZ seen as bridge-builder: Mr McLay then noted how New Zealand is able to turn this independence to good diplomatic account:
Also support comes because of our reputation ‘as an innovator, we try to build bridges between various factions; we try to solve problems rather than to cause them, and that is the strong reputation that New Zealand has.
Building bridges between conflicting parties and working with them to help find solutions as an honest broker is thus now seen as a salient and normal feature of New Zealand’s work with United Nations members.
This is also precisely the role that Larry Ross proposed for New Zealand in the 1980s through the New Zealand Nuclear-Free Zone Committee he founded in 1981. This organization supported local people throughout the country to declare their areas and the whole country “nuclear-free” and adopt a complementary, peacemaking service-based foreign policy that he called “positive neutrality”. These words were used to clearly distinguish what he advocated from indifferent, “isolationist” neutrality.
Had Larry been still alive (he died 2 years ago) he would have been delighted that New Zealand got the UN seat and the way “honest broker” and bridge-building roles helped it to do this.
The immediately obvious challenge for New Zealand now is to be fully effective at such brokering work. However Terence O’Brien and Michael Powels, two retired New Zealand ambassadors have drawn attention to how major restructuring cutbacks made on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2012 will make it difficult for the New Zealand delegation.
As Terence O’Brien said,
The reforms that have been undertaken have undoubtedly diluted the level of experience and knowledge inside MFAT and it’s going to be a real test for them, I think, to supply the sort of backup that the UN Security Council delegation will need.
Proposals have been made on Village-Connections to create networks of diplomatic “experience and knowledge” in a well-networked Wellington “diplomatic village”. These proposals involve facilitating connections and conversations between Wellington-based New Zealand and foreign embassy diplomats with the assistance of relevant Victoria University staff, departments and programs.
To support the Security Council delegation a priority could be made of creating supportive networks of dialogue, learning and research to meet its requests and wider needs.
Such networking could also provide a unique platform for wider, on-going conversations. In these, shared perspectives could emerge in which diverse problems and possibilities could be better understood and solutions developed. Such conversations could continue both during and after New Zealand’s 2 year stint on the Security Council.
Other countries might also like to develop similar models of diplomatic conversation in their capital cities whilst engaging with those taking place in Wellington.
Should such Wellington conversations continue to be useful after its Security Council tenure, New Zealand might well continue be sought for valued contributions at the world’s top decision-making tables.
The amenities and knowledgeable people to do these things exist in Wellington – they just need to be networked (around an appropriate vision). They could be made so much more productive if they were.
I would indeed venture to say more broadly that it is time to move on from an age of neoliberal cutbacks that have diminished capacities in many fields in many parts of the world to one of truly creative, and convivial, networked productivity.
What do you think? Your comments, for or against, are most welcome.