Every now and then someone calls for a “bipartisan” foreign policy, as there allegedly was in some past golden age. Why do such calls fall on deaf political ears?
First, many of the calls were by academics or other commentators who talk about foreign policy but don’t do it. Those who do foreign policy can safely ignore such people in a country which does not much value expert and academic analysis.
More to the point, however, there probably has never really been a “bipartisan” foreign policy. Iraq exposed that brutally.
The word “bipartisan” stems from the days when Labour and National had Parliament to themselves (or as good as did). Nowadays it would translate as something like “near-consensus”, allowing for fringe departures such as the Greens’ and ACT’s.
But “bipartisan” captures the essence of the idea that, in facing the world, ideally major parties that can lead governments would broadly agree on priorities, objectives and approaches.
The reasoning is that whatever enmities there are within the country, our enemies without are a greater threat because that threatens our national integrity. And even if there are no security threats, bipartisanship would help achieve, say, a free trade agreement because foreigners could not play off factions to diminish bargaining power.
There are two problems with this, one general and the other specific.
The general problem is that the government conducts foreign affairs and defence under the Crown’s vestigial “royal prerogative”. Technically, when it acts on foreign policy it embodies the country, as the monarch once did. Other parties are shut out. Parliament cannot amend treaties, for example.
But our politics, which are republican in sentiment if not in form, don’t much respect constitutional niceties. Anyway at the next turn of the wheel the opposition will call the shots. It fears that biting its tongue in opposition would shackle it in office.
The specific problem with the bipartisan notion is that actually Labour and National view the world outside from fundamentally different perspectives. They always have, even though at times they have appeared to be in step.
The touchstone for this country’s foreign policy, which in effect dates from the 1930s when the first Labour government made the first real break with Britain — over Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia — is our smallness.
A small country cannot defend itself, in war or in trade. It needs help.
One way is to snuggle up to someone big. In the days of empire, that was automatically Britain. After the fall of Singapore early in World War II, it became the United States — with Britain and Australia as blood-brother auxiliaries.
This is the instinctive reflex of the National party and the right generally. It suffused National’s approach to Iraq which in the crunch was that we should have support teams alongside the American, British and Australian combatants in Iraq.
The alternative is to put our trust in supranational institutions which lay down rules. A rules-based world, with agreed arbiters, enables the weak to seek refuge from the strong.
This is the instinctive reflex of the Labour party. It led to that 1930s breach with Britain. New Zealand argued for League of Nations condemnation of Italy in the face of considerable pressure from Britain to come to heel.
The multilateralist reflex showed in Helen Clark’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq without an explicit United Nations mandate — as, for example, the invasion of Afghanistan did and the defence of Kosovo didn’t. She maintained that position even at the risk that it might cost her a free trade agreement with the United States, as it may well have done.
Of course, there have been and are blurrings of this Labour-National distinction. Labour, for example, backed the alliances with the United States, Britain and Australia in the first two decades of the Cold War, up to the Vietnam war in the 1960s.
And while National has often been critical of the United Nations, particularly during Sir Keith Holyoake’s and Sir Robert Muldoon’s reigns, it has contributed generously to United Nations peacekeeping and supports a rules-based trading system under the World Trade Organisation.
But generally Labour has been uneasy in alliances and National sceptical of the United Nations and some other multilateral institutions. The two parties’ positioning over Iraq was both predictable and in character.
It is one of the great divides of our politics. And, however desirable an enduring “bipartisan” foreign and defence policy might be, it is the exception and not the rule.