McCully's job for National to make a foreign policy start

Winston Peters will today give his first major speech on foreign policy. Murray McCully will follow him. It is a big test for both.

The interest in Peters’ contribution to today’s “major foreign policy issues” seminar organised by the Institute of International Affairs will lie in how much of his own spin he puts on the notes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Emfat) has prepared.

Emfat wallahs say he is taking his job seriously. So we should take his paper seriously. One test will be whether he wastes time attacking the media that he could spend attacking the topic.

The interest in McCully, an afterthought addition to the programme, lies in the fact that his long political career has not been a fecund source of weighty thoughts or speeches. For him “strategic” has been “next Tuesday”, his style hit-and-run.

McCully has said he is shadow foreign minister to keep a hand on the tiller until new MPs Tim Groser and John Hayes get their political sea-legs. So the intrigue in his paper will be how much those two very different, highly opinionated and sometimes difficult ex-Emfat wallahs — the trade czar and the architect of the Bougainville peace — speak through him today.

National needs straight, intelligent rethinking of its approach to international affairs and foreign policy. The country needs it too, since National will likely run the government after 2008.

New Zealand is in the world more than ever through the globalisation of money, trade and terror. Foreign policy is important. McCully’s job is to show us how well National has grasped that simple fact.

First, he could tell us whether alliance is the basis of National’s policy, as it is for John Howard’s Australian Liberals. If it is, what are we to make of McCully’s cut-and-run over nuclear-powered vessels this month? If it is not, why did Don Brash and before him Bill English say they would have ridden with Howard into Iraq on George Bush’s smart bombs?

This is not soft-shoe-shuffle stuff. Either a policy is alliance-based or it is not. Labour’s is not. It is firmly, smugly multilateral — soft-power, hoping to earn credits as a good international citizen, using a tiny army for “people” activities, making and keeping peace.

The argument for an alliance-based policy is that Labour’s has cost us a trade deal with the United States and good will in Canberra and in some south-east Asian capitals. Peacemaking and reconstruction and SAS action and sea and air monitoring in the Gulf have not yet grown scar tissue over the breach.

An alliance-based policy is hard-power-driven. It requires a much bigger military budget, as Australia has found, trying to mesh with the United States’ high-tech military. And it would require gutsy, bold leadership at home to swing public opinion — the opposite of McCully’s bomb fudge.

McCully then needs to say how National will manage trans-Tasman affairs. Again, fudge is no help. He must strike a precise balance between mate and separateness, symbiosis and sovereignty.

The relationship is multi-layered and multi-faceted: security in the Pacific and in Asia, two-way trade and the many behind-the-border matters involved in a single market, cooperation and mutual assistance across many activities, migration, environmental management policy and even cultural issues.

And all that is complicated by very different demographic makeups, divergent cultures and an inescapable geographical distance, yet also a common British heritage, deeply shared culture and geographical proximity — all wrapped up in multiple asymmetries.

Next, China.

China is huge, economically sprinting and an undeniable force. It is also economically distorted, demographically top-heavy, increasingly socially unequal and resource-constrained (especially of water). It is re-equipping its military and insistent on the retention and recovery of empire.

A “trilateral dialogue” of German, Australian and New Zealand bureaucrats, scholars and journalists in Sydney on Friday traced as many doubts as certainties about China’s future trajectory.

Some seriously doubted China has a democratic future. One or two argued that India, while developing economically more slowly now, might in time be more sustainable because it is democratic.

This is not academic. We are in the Asian theatre. How China and Japan play out their rivalry, how the Taiwan question is resolved, whether Asia will be bipolar (China-India) or tripolar (China-India-United State/Japan/south-east Asia) will bear upon our security and prosperity.

There are many other questions for McCully, among them trade and refugees and mass migration and the place of Islam. The list is long and National’s record in addressing them thin.

Don Brash is not a foreign policy man. Quicksilver Groser and quirky Hayes are new to politics. So it is up to McCully to turn over a parallel new leaf to the one alleged in Peters’ case — to start to make, for all our sakes, a serious National foreign policy.