Story: Foreign policy and diplomatic representation

Page 9. Characteristics of foreign policy

All images & media in this story

New Zealand’s unique features

A country’s size, geographical location, history and economy all influence the way it conducts foreign policy. New Zealand is relatively remote from the world’s centres of power. It has no land borders with other countries and has always had good relations with its only large neighbour, Australia. Its population, economy and armed forces are small. It is heavily dependent on trade in a relatively narrow range of primary products for which demand and price are determined outside New Zealand, and on tourists who arrive by air. It imports capital, technology and skilled people. These characteristics mean that, unlike major powers but like most other countries, New Zealand cannot impose its will on other countries or shape events by itself. Its level of influence in the South Pacific is a partial exception to this rule.

Speaking out

The United Nations Security Council is the UN’s most powerful body, responsible for maintaining international peace and security. New Zealand has been a member of the council in 1954–55, 1966, 1993–94 and 2015-16. In 1954 New Zealand voted against the US over a CIA-backed military coup in Guatemala. As president of the council in 1994, New Zealand advocated forceful action to stop the genocide in Rwanda. New Zealand subsequently spearheaded efforts to establish the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.1

International organisations

One way New Zealand achieves its foreign-policy objectives is through active participation in multilateral organisations such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. These negotiate international norms and rules applicable to all countries, regardless of size or level of development, in areas as diverse as international trade, human rights, fisheries management, arms control, the environment and law of the sea. Participation in such bodies is on the basis that each country has equal status, which advantages smaller countries. In some multilateral negotiations New Zealand has been more prominent and influential than many other small countries, because it contributes ideas on important issues and works hard to bridge differences among the parties.

Party politics and foreign policy

New Zealand’s major political parties have broadly agreed on the country’s international political and economic objectives but sometimes differed on details or on implementation. Occasionally, serious policy disagreements have ruptured this bipartisan approach. The anti-nuclear policy and its impact on ANZUS (the agreement on military cooperation between New Zealand, Australia and the US) in the 1980s was a prime example, as were involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and relations with apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and early 1980s. The conflicts were partly between principles and pragmatism, but also between different formulations of both – for instance, whether it was in New Zealand’s interest to host nuclear-armed or –powered ships.

Foreign or economic policy?

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s 1980 observation that ‘our foreign policy is trade’2 had a grain of truth. Nevertheless, successive New Zealand governments have concluded that active participation across the full range of international issues brings benefits, even in the commercial sphere, which a narrow concentration on trade diplomacy would not deliver. The need to protect trade in certain markets, to find new markets for New Zealand exports and to diversify sources of key imports has led to significant expansion of New Zealand’s diplomatic representation. Policy stances have been adopted on many issues that were of limited relevance to New Zealand but important to partner countries. Growing economic engagement with Asia has drawn New Zealand into regional political groupings such as the East Asia Summit.

  1. ‘New Zealand seeks UN Security Council seat.’ Stuff, 26 September 2009, (last accessed 19 August 2011). Back
  2. New Zealand in world affairs, 1972–1990. Wellington: New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, p. 19. Back
How to cite this page:

Michael Green, 'Foreign policy and diplomatic representation - Characteristics of foreign policy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Michael Green, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 May 2016