The pretence of ‘honest broker’ helps NZ’s ruling class pursue their own interests in the Pacific, Asia and elsewhere

The article below was written in 1997 and appeared in revolution #3, Aug/Sept 1997, a Christchurch-based Marxist journal; as NZ intervention in both the Pacific and elsewhere since shows, the article very much retains its relevance

by Linda Kearns

Negotiations recently concluded between the Papua New Guinea government-appointed regime on Bougainville and Bougainville separatists. The talks were held at Burnham military camp outside Christchurch, producing the ‘Burnham Agreement’.

At a time when its popularity is plummeting in the polls, and politicians are held in deep contempt, the New Zealand government is delighting in being able to play the moral card, as a disinterested observer helping Third World warring factions sort out their problems. Even left-wing Alliance Party leader Jim Anderton describes New Zealand as an “honest broker” in the process.

This country’s interests in the Asia-Pacific region are, however, anything but noble. In fact, it is the ability of our rulers to appear as a moral player, or ‘honest broker’, which is crucial in allowing them to pursue their regional interests as a capitalist class.

How the policy makers see things

Both New Zealand’s military capacities and its relations with the region are key topics of discussion in foreign and defence policy circles in this country.

Deputy-director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University David Dickens, noting that three quarters of NZ’s export income and imports are generated from the Asia-Pacific region, holds that this country’s “economic well-being depends on overseas trade” and that “New Zealand’s strategic interests are global” (Dickens, “Building peace through credible defence”, New Zealand International Review, vol 22, no 3, May-June 1997, p11). “(I)f detractors can show that New Zealand is not serious about conventional defence, then Wellington’s credibility on security issues will be undermined. Without a credible defence posture New Zealand will struggle to create a credible foreign policy” (ibid).

Dickens argues that NZ’s military forces “are an ideal instrument to underpin Wellington’s claim that it is genuinely interested in security in the region” (ibid, p14), ‘security’ being a euphemism for a state of affairs in which the business of exploitation and oppression proceeds with the least disturbance.

New Zealand needs, in Dickens’ view, “a defence force that is thoroughly modern, technologically sophisticated, doctrinally advanced, well-equipped and trained. . . Personnel and forces must be capable of deployment overseas in co-operation with others as part of larger groupings or forces” (ibid). He is concerned that NZ’s military capacity be utilised “to build global security, not only in the conventional military sphere but also in fields such as the control of weapons of mass destruction, environmental security, and human rights” (ibid, p11).

Intervention by Western capitalist elites in the Third World is these days recast in the language of moral imperatives – ‘weapons control’, ‘environmental protection’ and ‘human rights’. The United States government, for instance, claimed it was protecting the human rights of the Kuwaitis and the marsh Arabs and controlling Saddam Hussein’s supposedly lethal weapons when it attacked Iraq and incinerated several hundred thousand people. The United Nations, that most ‘moral’ of all world institutions, maintains sanctions against Iraq that have led to several hundred thousand more deaths.

NZ and the post-Cold War Pacific

The end of the Cold War has made the old alliances obsolete and opened up new conflicts and jockeying for position among former allies.

For instance, in the 1970s and 1980s, the NZ government opposed independence for New Caledonia and French Polynesia and other islands under colonial rule. It was not averse to French testing at Moruroa or Washington using its possessions in Micronesia as dumping grounds for nuclear waste. And when Libya tried to establish normal diplomatic relations with the radical nationalist government of the time in Vanuatu, NZ and Australia were outraged and successfully helped bring pressure, largely with US assistance, to prevent this happening.

The fourth Labour government utilised the ‘moral authority’ it gained from its ban on nuclear warships to step up NZ’s military involvement in the Pacific to levels not seen since World War II, all in the service of the Western alliance and NZ capitalism’s interests within that framework (see Grant Cronin, Andy Morris & Phil Duncan, New Zealand and the New World (Dis)order, Christchurch, Revolutionary Marxist Collective, 1997).

Now that the Cold War is over, however, the interests of the Western elites are tending to come into conflict. New Zealand, for instance, no longer needs to play quite such a second-string role to countries like France and the USA in the region. Moreover, the shift in NZ export markets noted by Dickens means that Asia now takes twice as much of this country’s exports as Britain and the whole of the rest of Europe combined, as well as more than the USA takes.

The fall in the rate of profit in New Zealand also drives firms to look for more lucrative pickings abroad, especially in the Asia-Pacific area.

Our rulers are both able to assert their own interests in a more forthright way than during the Cold War era and have a greater necessity to do so. Thus the National government campaigned against French testing at Moruroa and establishment politicians fell over themselves to get aboard the protest vessels going there. Some National MPs even came out for decolonisation of French Polynesia, a far cry from the days of Muldoon.

The benefits of the ‘moral card’

Being able to play the ‘moral card’ is crucial for our rulers’ ability to assert their interests at home and abroad in a number of ways.

Firstly, it helps cohere NZ society itself. For instance, as social decay and alienation from mainstream politicians grows, they attempt to shore up their credibility and moral authority through foreign policy. This helps hold society together here, with our rulers firmly on top. Their success in doing this can be seen in the way that many of yesterday’s campaigners against NZ involvement in Vietnam now support intervention in Bosnia and other parts of the world.

Secondly, it helps them expand their influence in the region. By appearing to be ‘different’ and ‘more sympathetic’ to the peoples of Asia and the Pacific than the big military powers, the NZ government can gain preferential access to new markets and raw materials for NZ business.

Thirdly, by appearing more ‘moral’ than the bigger powers, NZ can partly compensate for its relative military weakness when our rulers’ interests conflict with those of more powerful Western ruling elites. Thus, while the interests of NZ capital in the Pacific are just as malignant as those of French capital, as the smaller, more ‘moral’ state NZ is the one likely to win international public support. Brokering the ‘Burnham Agreement’ also helps New Zealand look like a serious – albeit small – player on the global imperialist circuit.

Fourthly, it helps hold together the military forces themselves. Ever since Vietnam, the Western powers involved in that conflict have been sensitive to the way in which their own troops can lose heart, making them feel they are part of a ‘humanitarian’ activity is therefore important.


The NZ ruling elite is becoming practised in the art of playing the moral card. But as historian Malcolm McKinnon – a brother of Foreign Affairs minister Don – has noted, although NZ policies in the Pacific may have a “radical ‘feel’ (they) are clearly classic interest-driven policies” (McKinnon, cited in Cronin, Morris & Duncan, p15).

The fact that most critics of the establishment nevertheless accept the idea that NZ capitalism is ‘different’ allows the government to get away with playing the moral card and ensures there is no real public debate over foreign policy.

Rather than strengthening our rulers’ ideological hold over society and their ability to pursue their interests abroad without public opposition, we need to rip away the mask of NZ as an ‘honest broker’ and show the real interests at work. Without doing this, it is impossible to build any real opposition movement in this country.

Some further reading on NZ and the Pacific:
Samoa: what New Zealand did
Depriving Samoans of immigration and citizenship rights


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