Foreign Affairs

Push for peace from new foreign policy body

A new  foreign policy think tank has launched, following Winston Peters’ call for less “intellectual timidity” on the issue. Sam Sachdeva reports on the group’s call for New Zealand to set up an independent conflict prevention unit - and Peters’ response.

Speaking to the Otago Foreign Policy School earlier this year, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters did not mince words about the state of foreign policy analysis in New Zealand.

“Small thinking leads to small outcomes,” Peters said, calling on the media and academia to contribute more than “orthodox analyses” as the Government sought to mould its own approach to the world stage.

“It is not a time for intellectual timidity. It is a time for original thinking as we develop foreign policy prescriptions from adaptation rather than deliberate creation.”

A new foreign policy think tank, New Zealand Alternative, has made a bid to take up Peters’ challenge, with a report calling for the Government to establish a standalone conflict prevention unit.

"We were all thinking there is not enough discussion in New Zealand about foreign policy, and what discussion there was was not very inclusive or accessible.”

The organisation has been set up by four Kiwis: international relations professor Dr Nina Hall, author and Oxford fellow Max Harris, ActionStation director Laura O’Connell Rapira, and Massey University politics lecturer Thomas Nash.

Nash, whose work on a campaign calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons helped it to win a Nobel Peace Prize, told Newsroom the launch of the think tank was inspired by the group’s discussions about New Zealand’s place in the world, as well as Peters’ words.

“The common thread is we were all thinking there is not enough discussion in New Zealand about foreign policy, and what discussion there was was not very inclusive or accessible.”

The New Zealand Alternative's report says New Zealand has a long history when it comes to peace mediation. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

The report calls for a feasibility study on the establishment of an independent “conflict prevention unit”, similar to a standalone Crown entity, which would be tasked with developing a strategy for New Zealand’s role in peace mediation.

“It could really be a kind of repository for all that knowledge and skill that over time could become a really sophisticated and well-resourced entity that would be able to put us as a country in the best possible position to provide assistance to other countries when they ask for it, if they need it.”

Nash said there was “a really clear thread in New Zealand’s history, a really deep connection to peace”, citing the Parihaka peace settlement and the anti-nuclear movement.

Experts spoken to for the report, such as former NZ Army chief Dave Gawn, had suggested New Zealand’s history of, and expertise on, peace mediation meant a standalone unit could be valuable.

“The thing about conflict prevention that makes it hard to sell to politicians is when it works, you don’t really hear about it.”

In addition, documents obtained under the Official Information Act dating back to New Zealand’s time on the UN Security Council under the last government also showed officials calling for the development of a “modest” conflict prevention capacity, saying: “We have all the building blocks. It is important not to let them slip away.”

The group had estimated the unit would cost $1.1 million to set up and run during its first year.

The report raised New Zealand’s involvement in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, and its trade relationships, as possible barriers to a more prominent mediation role, and Nash acknowledged any change on those issues was “unlikely in the short term” given the broad bipartisan consensus.

Finding the political will for action was also an issue, he said: “The thing about conflict prevention that makes it hard to sell to politicians is when it works, you don’t really hear about it.”

Winston Peters questioned the need for a standalone conflict prevention unit given the work already being done by MFAT. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Given that, he may not have been surprised by Peters’ response to the report, with the minister asking why the Government should fund an independent unit given the work already done by foreign affairs officials.

“We’ve got that body now, it’s at [MFAT]. Bougainville and RAMSI in the Solomon Islands, Timor, police problems and riots in Tonga: how many times do we have to turn up and do our duty as a country before people realise we have got a prevention unit going already...

“We can always do more, but you’ve got to persuade the constituency out there and the parliamentarians in there and the Minister of Finance to give me more money to do a better job out there - I can’t do it without money.”

“I don’t think it hurts to have academic research into these areas, but I think you should know the level of conflict prevention we have been involved in in the past, going back a long way ... and also what we’re doing now.”

The reference to Peters’ call for more original thinking on foreign policy was “probably the redeeming part of their research”, he quipped.

“I don’t think it hurts to have academic research into these areas, but I think you should know the level of conflict prevention we have been involved in in the past, going back a long way ... and also what we’re doing now.”

Nash said the group was planning a series of community hui to discuss what other topics they could produce similar reports on.

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