A hundred years on from Gallipoli, and a few days after the massacre in in Paris, where does New Zealand stand in the western alliance and what is out role in the world's troubles?
As we come towards the end of 2015, it's worth reflecting on what the commemorations of World War One, and in particular the Gallipoli campaign, have been all about. Why do the commemoration resonate so much with the New Zealand public?
As a member of the World War One Commemoration Panel, I have had particular cause to think about this, both from a personal and also a broader national perspective.
In my view, their importance is not only about the commemoration of the emerging sense of nationhood that occurred in 1915, it is also relates to how we now see ourselves in the world. The past connects to the present. We have not become disconnected from our past. If we had, we would think about Gallipoli in quite a different way than we do.
No doubt the reality of what it means for New Zealand to be a western nation will play out over the next few weeks as the West works out what they need to do to curb the threat of ISIS.
So our history is a powerful draw on the present. In 1915, Britain really was the mother country; that was how most New Zealanders thought of it. Her causes were our causes. That remained essentially true at the opening of the Second World War, as Prime Minister Michael Savage famous words “Where Britain stands, we stand,” testified.
We had no doubt about our identification. Within two short years this had changed. In 1942, following the fall of Singapore, we had to look elsewhere, thus the importance of the protection afforded by the United States from 1942, and for the next 45 years.
World War Two is over 70 years ago. How much have these concerns echoed down the years? Well, not nearly as much as for Australia. But it remains fundamentally remains true that for most New Zealanders, we clearly identify as part of the West. And for many new migrants, though not all, this identification of New Zealand as a western nation is part of the reason why they come here.
Not everyone is comfortable about this. Maybe 25% of population, essentially of the Left, would prefer a different approach. At least to be like Sweden, and perhaps more like Chile, a country which is undoubtedly an advanced and sophisticated nation. Chile does not identify as the part of the West, though I suspect that of all the Latin American nations, Chile would have the closest affinity. Nevertheless Chile is never asked, and does not expect to participate in western causes.
Conservatives are naturally more comfortable about New Zealand’s identification as part of the West. The principal reason why I joined National was because Mrs Thatcher said the West could defeat the Soviet Union in our lifetime, not by war, but by superior values. But it did mean standing up to the Soviet Union, matching for instance the Soviet Union deployment of the SS20 missiles in Eastern Europe with the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles. For me it was a question of whose side were you on.
At the time I was doing my PhD in Cambridge and was also attached to the British Army as a Territorial Army Officer. I saw the Cruise and Pershing missile issue as an essential test of western resolve. Chancellor Schmidt of West Germany, and also the leader of the SDP, had no doubt as to where Germany had to stand on this issue. The fall of the Soviet Union a few years later had, at least in part, its origins in this test of will.
What does this have to do with today’s events? For the past 15 years, the West has been engaged in a struggle against radical Muslim terrorism. This has many causes, many of them created by ourselves. Nevertheless, the reality is that there have numerous acts of terror directed at civilians in a number of Western nations. The most notable is 9/11, with this week’s attacks in Paris being the worst since then.
So the question becomes what we do about it? At the very least the attacks have to be prevented, to the best extent possible. The ISIS terrorists have been quite clear. They say very directly they are attacking western nations and western values. Can the west afford to leave the ISIS pro-state in place to plan, to train and to support further terrorist attacks?
This is where the question of how New Zealand identifies itself comes into play. If we see ourselves as a western nation, we will have to be part of the western response. If we do not, then we don’t have to contribute.
To date both the governments of Helen Clark and John Key have felt impelled to act, and often in quite a muscular way. Willie Apiata did not win his Victoria Cross by being part of a logistics effort. Nevertheless western governments have choices. They can be part of the inner group, literally taking the fight to the enemy, or they can be part of the support team. An essential role, but clearly with less risk, and less identification than a more “direct action” role, the term often used by Helen Clark to describe the role of the SAS in Afghanistan. When in Afghanistan I flew on a Swedish C130. Sweden is no longer a neutral country, but it carefully calibrates its contributions to western causes.
Of course so does New Zealand, except we make a different judgment to Sweden, driven in part by our history, and by how we see ourselves today.
New Zealand remains part of the inner group. It is how we primarily want to be seen. We are not as insistent about this as is Australia, but we do enough so there is no doubt about our role.
Will New Zealand continue to see ourselves like this?
Probably yes. Although Labour opposed the deployment of trainers to Iraq, I suspect had they been in government they would have made the same decision as National. But the Greens would not have done so. Civil aid would have been seen as more appropriate. But that is more than most South American nations contribute. They don’t do so because they see no need to involve themselves, even at a humanitarian level, in western causes. Right across the New Zealand political spectrum, history remains a powerful draw.
In the next few weeks I suspect western nations will take a more forthright approach to ISIS. It will involve “boots on the ground” even if this is mostly special forces directly supporting the Iraqi Army. New Zealand is likely to be asked to play our part. History will be as much a guide as to what we will do as any other factor. Because it is our history that defines us.