Pre-Second World War
Before the Second World War New Zealand was a British dominion with no diplomatic service and only one significant overseas post, its high commission in London. Information on international affairs was supplied to the high commission by the UK government. When New Zealand had comments to offer, it made them to the UK’s Dominions Office. Until 1939 New Zealand’s governor-general was the channel for communications in both directions.
These arragements reflected New Zealand’s place in the world. The bulk of its trade was with the UK, much of it conducted under preferential arrangements. The UK was New Zealand’s main source of capital, migrants, ideas and culture. The Royal Navy protected the country. Nationhood was embryonic and most New Zealanders considered themselves British.
Department of External Affairs
A Department of External Affairs had been established in 1919 – but its focus was on the administration of Western Samoa (a New Zealand responsibility under a League of Nations mandate).
Dreams of grandeur
Since colonial times New Zealand political leaders have tried to claim a greater influence for New Zealand in South Pacific affairs. Even in the 1840s there was talk of a ‘British Empire in the Pacific centering on New Zealand’ and of a ‘grand island dominion’, or ‘Oceania for the Anglo-Saxons’.1
New Zealand sought a role in British Empire policy-making during and after the First World War. In 1926 responsibility for external affairs beyond the Pacific was assumed by the newly created Prime Minister’s Department. Carl Berendsen, who headed the imperial-affairs section of the department, made an important contribution to the formulation of New Zealand’s imperial policies. It was this section that handled preparations for imperial conferences. In the lead-up to and during these conferences, New Zealand ministers actively defended their country’s interests. They also negotiated trade treaties with both empire and foreign governments.
League of Nations
In 1920 New Zealand, with other British dominions, became a founding member of the League of Nations. New Zealand was usually represented at league meetings by its high commissioner in London, who consulted closely with the British government.
The Labour government that took office at the end of 1935 was strongly anti-war and wanted to see the League of Nations strengthened for that purpose. This policy brought it into disagreement with the conservative UK government of the day. Such conflicts have sometimes been cited as early indicators of independence in New Zealand foreign policy. However, they were also party political disagreements, since New Zealand’s stance echoed positions taken by the British Labour Party, then in opposition.