The New Zealand government engages with many intergovernmental organisations. Over time, the scope, number and importance of these multilateral bodies has expanded greatly. The 20th century saw enhanced dependence between states and an increase in global problems that required a collective institutional response.
Types of organisations
New Zealand’s multilateral experience has been widespread. It includes engagement across a broad spectrum of international organisations. Some are global in reach, such as the United Nations (UN) and its numerous specialised agencies. Others are regional, such as the Pacific Islands Forum.
Some agencies are multi-purpose, such as the United Nations Development Programme, headed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark from 2009 to 2017. Others are specialised and technical, such as the World Meteorological Organization, where New Zealand scientists supply and share important climate-change information.
Quack, quack, quack!
‘Here we sit listening to quack, quack, quack, hour after hour. We are sick of it!’ shouted William Jordan, New Zealand’s representative at the Paris peace talks in 1946.1 This meeting, like all multilateral gatherings, was a talkfest, and was made worse by delaying tactics from the Russian delegates. Jordan’s frustrated cry drew applause from the press.
Multilateral activity also takes place in other contexts. Notable examples are the conferences after the first and second world wars, which decided the financial and political shape of the industrialised world.
Purpose and process
The performance of multilateral organisations has been mixed, but membership has been deemed indispensable by New Zealand governments. As for other small countries, such organisations provide an essential way of advancing New Zealand’s interests and give it a voice in important issues. New Zealand’s representatives use a form of statecraft termed ‘multilateral diplomacy’. It requires collaboration, consensus forming and compromise, often across competing – at times conflicting – national interests.
Through multilateral organisations – particularly the United Nations – New Zealand has had contact with governments with whom it has no diplomatic representation, built common policy approaches, and fostered professional diplomatic and non-governmental interchanges. Doing so has required a grasp of detail, flexibility, and the ability to take opportunities as they arise.
New Zealand’s multilateral record has enhanced its diplomatic standing as a reliable and constructive global citizen.
First multilateral involvement
New Zealand came into being as part of a multilateral organisation. As one of the ‘white’ colonies of the British Empire, New Zealand engaged with Britain and the other colonies from the time of European settlement onwards. Its inclusion in the empire was automatic, but local support for the empire was strong, bolstered by the importance of Britain as a trading partner. Commonwealth relations, based on consent rather than coercion, were a model that New Zealand continued to use for engagement in multilateral organisations into the 1960s and 1970s.
Government interest, shaped by trade, defence and domestic politics, shifted over time. The British Empire continued to be New Zealand’s focus until the 1920s and 1930s, when the League of Nations became a significant forum. Attention swung back to the Commonwealth at the end of the 1930s. When it became clear that Britain could not defend New Zealand, government interest moved toward the United States and Australia. Alliances such as the ANZUS defence pact with Australia and the US, and SEATO (the South East Asia Treaty Organization), were an outcome of that shift.
Party politics also shaped multilateral activity. Conservative governments favoured the British Empire and the Commonwealth. Left-leaning governments shared that commitment, but were also more likely to be enthusiastic about the League of Nations (from 1920) and then the United Nations (from 1945).
Areas of activity
Multilateral activity abroad has been matched by greater government agency responsibilities and public policy development in New Zealand. Areas of concern have included war and conflict, size and remoteness, trade and finance, rule-making, and human rights and welfare.
In the 2000s international institutions face challenges of legitimacy and effectiveness. Some believe that they are unwieldy, unrepresentative of the global poor and unduly hierarchical. There are demands for reform of the UN and the major international financial institutions.
Calls for reform were underlined by the 1999 emergence of the Group of 20 (finance ministers and central-bank governors from 20 major economies), growing prominence of stronger regional powers and worsening global economic and social disparities. This reinforced New Zealand’s need to enhance a principled, constructive and independent contribution to multilateral activities.