While Australia is arming itself to the teeth to prepare for future wars, for the sake of the region New Zealand should stick to what it does best

Mike Moore put is succinctly and colourfully, in distinctly Mooresque terms: Australians are becoming the Texans of the South Pacific and New Zealand are the Canadians.

Without unwrapping screeds of wonky foreign policy, everyone watching Q+A on Sunday morning would have known exactly what Moore meant. Australia is getting the big guns and we're not.

Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith had just been explaining Australia's commitment, announced at the end of April, to spend $100 billion over the next 20 years arming itself to the teeth. Exactly 100 new fighter jets, a fleet of 12 new submarines, and a gaggle of warships to boot. When they look around the Pacific, the Australians see potential enemies. As a result, they are building a defence force of a might befitting a "middle power", complete with a "don't even think about it" strike capacity. New Zealand has no such plans.

It has long been thus; but not always. For decades this country over-compensated for the implications of our size and geography by sending its sons to die in far-flung wars, often in disproportionate numbers. We fought those implications as hard as we fought the Jerries. No-one was going to say we didn't do our fair share just because we came from down the bottom of the world.

The Lange administration's withdrawal from ANZUS implied a change in attitude and the Clark government made it implicit. With the Key government has come acceptance. Or so it seems. We are not a country to impose its will with guns and bravado. We are not Texans, or indeed, Australians.

Some New Zealanders still grind their teeth at this, endlessly fretting that we aren't pulling our weight in defence. What they seem determined not to understand is that we have a different role; one that plays to our strengths and one that many Australians - and even many Americans - are entirely happy with.

In simple terms, it's a 'good cop, bad cop' routine for the Asia-Pacific stage. Ultimately, we want many of the same things, but have different methods. Australia is the bad cop, with its subs and jet fighters and a hint of fear in its eyes. It can fight state-to-state wars with whoever might come along. The Australian analysts who wrote the recent Australian White Paper on defence that recommended the spend-up hinted - with some bolstering by a few hairy-chested and slightly paranoid politicians - that the growing Chinese military could "cause concern" to its neighbours. But really they're preparing for all-comers. The emphasis on naval spending is an attempt to fight any enemy before they reach Australian soil.

We, on the other hand, are the good cop. The Canadians. We don't prepare to fight the wars between countries, but to help deal with the battles within countries.

That doesn't mean we're not doing our bit. Given the size of our population and our economy, the distance from other countries, our benign immediate neighbours, our alliances, and our peace-keeping, multilateral-loving reputation, our role is to be the one without the guns. The honest broker. The smiling old uncle. The one who keeps the peace, stabilises the nation, helps keep down the insurgencies, and rebuilds the soft power in a nation.

As Moore also said on TVNZ, even though Australia gave many millions more in aid each year, it was New Zealand that was able to make progress on the Bougainville peace talks. "Guess who they liked better," he said.

It's a division of labour that works, but it means that Australia needs to not only put up with our more independent line of world affairs, it should welcome it. If we are to be the honest broker, we are better as a close friend of America's than as a close ally. Our closer relationship with China, which Australia covets, is strategically a boon for them as well.

What it does not mean is that we need to bend over backwards to fit in with Australia's view of the Pacific as a scary place or spend over the odds to accommodate Australia's 'middle power' aspirations. Yes, we should be thankful for the shield it creates between us any clear and potential danger; and yes, we should look for areas of compatibility and what's known as inter-operability (that is, the ability and technical capacity for our armed services to work together).

But as we prepare our own White Paper this year, we should remember the strategic role we play in this neighbourhood of the world, remember what is in our national interest, and not be held hostage by the big-spending aspirations of our Texan ally across the ditch. This government took re-jigged its "gone by lunchtime" foreign policy as part of its conversion to 'Labour lite'. This White Paper will be a test of whether it's really bought into an independent approach to our foreign policy. It needs the courage to be Canada.

Comments (4)

by DeepRed on June 24, 2009
DeepRed

Sounds like Jon Stewart got it right in America: The Book. :)

by Tim Watkin on June 24, 2009
Tim Watkin

Stewart usually does get it right... but what are you talking about in this instance Matthew?

by DeepRed on June 25, 2009
DeepRed

Here we are, courtesy of Lyndon Hood...

Fighting Talk, Jan 2007

by on March 07, 2012
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