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Q&A: Evaluating New Zealand’s membership of the UN Security Council

Line of Defence, April 2016

Dr. Damien Rogers of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security StudiesDr. Damien Rogers of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies


Amid continued commentary in the media assessing New Zealand’s temporary membership of the United Nations Security Council, Dr. Damien Rogers, Senior Lecturer at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, provides his take.


LoD: There have been some criticisms of NZ's UNSC performance that suggest NZ has been all talk and no action. The size of it's personnel commitment to UN peacekeeping, its stated commitment to human rights, and its record on climate change during its UNSC membership term have all been criticised by the media, Amnesty International and others. Are the criticisms justified?

DR: Firstly, I think that words are more important than action. The way that you describe an issue or problem can predetermine the possible course of action. Also, talking is often the first step in negotiating the end of hostilities or the beginning of peace, so I don’t think we should underestimate the value of talk.

But there is some justification for these criticisms, but on the one hand I don’t think New Zealand could be justly criticised for the level of its personnel commitment to UN peacekeeping. We’re a small country and our capabilities and resources are also very small in global terms. But what we do we do well, and that’s respected among the international community.

But numbers aren’t everything. Some big troop contributing nations, particularly from Africa and South Asia have a bad reputation for turning up poorly trained and poorly equipped. And I’d be very surprised or shocked if New Zealand peacekeepers were ever involved in the sexual exploitation of locals in post conflict situations.

On the other hand, the record on climate change isn’t as strong as it could be. The Earth, or what some academics call the anthroposcene, is a shared habitat, but we appear to be destroying it. If almost every security question dealt with in the Council could be framed in these logical terms first, that would do a lot to refocus minds around the world’s capitals.


LoD: You had mentioned that NZ's appointment to the UNSC would 'open up a number of complexities to navigate'. Has NZ's increasing closeness to the US compromised its effectiveness a UNSC member?

DR: Although we have a free trade agreement, and we’re slowly developing that relationship, China knows that NZ’s ties – particularly its defence and intelligence ties – are much stronger with Washington. That would have long term applications for NZ and it will limit the role that NZ can potentially play as an honest broker or mediator between China and the US should tensions continue to escalate and both parties search for some kind of release valve. It will be some other country that plays that role rather than NZ.


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But overall, I don’t think its compromised our effectiveness as a UNSC member, and in fact I think its given us some opportunities to grandstand when we’re know what the US position is and where it’s different from ours we’ve been able to voice dissent knowing that it will curry favour with some at home and others abroad but will have little impact on the council’s decision.


LoD: As part of its UNSC membership pitch, NZ claimed it would provide a voice for small states. Has it?

DR: In international diplomacy no state can really speak on behalf of another state, but NZ has tried to raise a small state’s voice, which can be beneficial for the world’s less powerful states. And it’s important that great powers don’t always have their way; that they pay or incur a higher cost for having their way.

But unlike other countries that lobby votes from smaller countries and then often abandon those states when they achieve their goal, the officials from MFAT make concerted efforts to engage with those other smaller states and particularly the African states to consider their view. That’s not to say that the MFATs were driven by those but there was a consultation and I think that will go down well and it might set a standard for small states in the future.

My final point on this is that small states are not necessarily weak states on the world stage. Many New Zealanders will proudly remember the anti-nuclear stance in the Pacific in respect to its great and powerful friend the United States. But is seems a long time ago since New Zealand has made such an ethical stance, particularly as it was prepared to pay such a significant cost to articulate it.


LoD: NZ has made a lot of noise in relation to the UNSC's ineffectiveness in relation to Syria. Is making noise all that NZ is really able to do, and to what effect?

DR: Clamor and enunciation is important to focus attention and set a tone in the related diplomacy, but New Zealand’s diplomats are very much of this world and need to be pragmatic. I don’t think a solution to Syria is likely to be brokered within the Security Council’s chambers. Syria is on Russia’s back door and Vladimir Putin whose former Soviet empire has shrunk in global proportions now reigns over a regional hegemony. He doesn’t want his ambit of influence to shrink, and we have seen this in his use of force in Georgia and recently the Ukraine.

I don’t think we should throw our hands up in despair and lament the death of collective security as it was envisaged by the founders of the UN system. In my classes I encourage people to go back to that moment in 1945 when we were at the end of the Second World War and about to embark on this collective security experiment: how do you get the five most powerful members in the world to buy into that? Well, the price for that was the ‘veto’.

I don’t really think that the original purpose of the Security Council was ever to end all wars, but it was to put a hand brake on the five major powers: to prevent the first states to join the nuclear club from going to war directly with one another. And if that’s the threshold, then the system has been very effective.

So I don’t think it was in NZ’s – or anyone in NZ’s – interests to send troops on the ground in Syria. That would have inflamed the situation. But I think that diplomats could have talked more about the conditions that led to the uprising in Syria and that also led to the rise of ISIS.


LoD: What value would increased talk on factors leading to the conflict have?

DR: It would encourage US policy makers to be a bit more circumspect in the options that they’re putting forward in public. That’s because there was a complicitness or a role in the rise of ISIS that goes unacknowledged.

This was kind of the case also with the global financial crisis. When US officials are talking about a need for austerity measures or the like, one could go back to them and make the point of “well, where did this global crisis come from?” By reiterating that, then it’s possible to elicit a more moderate, more thoughtful response from one’s American interlocutors: humbler foreign policy options. You’re not really going to get it, but you can try.


LoD: In its UNSC membership pitch, NZ claimed it would achieve "practical results". How would you evaluate NZ's performance in relation to this?

DR: I think that we have built our international profile as a good international citizen. Within MFAT I think we have probably built or bolstered diplomatic connections and capacity.

It’s also been good for the New Zealand domestic audience to have a sense of pride that although Kiwi’s can’t fly they can still reach the summit of global politics, even if it’s just for two years.

Interestingly though, MFAT officials have undertaken a small public information campaign out of Wellington where they brief journalists, NGOs and interested academics. The tone of the briefing I went to – the first one – was very chummy, very insider-ish, but nothing of substance that shouldn’t have been discussed was discussed. This was an effort to keep the domestic opinion makers in New Zealand on side and to feel that they were ‘in the tent’.

Apparently recently – although I wasn’t there – the NGOs and civil society that had started to criticise MFAT and New Zealand’s performance on the Council were not invited, and it was a closed session. So rather than public information, this becomes a ‘friends to the New Zealand Security Council team’ type of arrangement. The management of this could have been better thought than just excluding people that have become critical.

What’s the impact that New Zealand has made on the Security Council? At the moment you have McCully saying “I want you to be making more progress on the agenda items, I want to see New Zealand rolling up its sleaves and achieving more results that are on the formal agenda.” Then you’ve got the head diplomat, Gerard van Bohemen, saying “no actually what we’re trying to do is to modify and create behavioural change among members on the Council.”

This is interesting because here is a career diplomat saying that some of these things are unachievable or if we achieve these things on the agenda it’s going to come at a cost, and then when we’re off the seat we’re going to have fewer friends than we otherwise might have had. So with this focusing on behavioural change of members of the Security Council, there’s an eye on the long term ability of New Zealand diplomats to do their work after the end of the term.


LoD: What is the remainder of NZ's UNSC membership likely to hold, and what benefit to the national interest likely come of it?

DR: I see that it will be pretty much the same. There are probably going to be good photo opportunities or good profile building opportunities for New Zealand’s politicians as they go over there. That’s not a dig at the government of the day; it’s a function that they should fulfill. Opposition politicians will probably try and visit New York in the next year as well to try and capitalise on that.

I can’t foresee the future, but if things stay the same – and invariably they don’t – I don’t think there is likely to be any new benefits to the national interest – however that term is defined – from the second half of the term.

The last half though could be used as leverage for Helen Clark’s campaign for the Secretary Generalship, but that remains to be seen.


LoD: What are her chances?

DR: I think that she is a very wily political campaigner. I think her chances are fair and I wouldn’t underestimate her. Secretary General is always really, really tricky but Clark is a known quantity, she is on the radar because the work that she’s done in the UNDP, some of which will go down well, some of which won’t.

You can’t underestimate her. I think she’s been to every single country in the world, she’s active on social media, she obviously knows the UN bureaucracy because she chairs the most important committee there, so she’s well placed to mount a bid. She’s gone early and that helped tilt it to be a gender question that’s focusing on who it will be – will it be madam secretary general?

I talk to a lot of diplomats, and they will mention the UN’s system of rotating geographical representation. NZ, although it’s in the Pacific, is grouped in with Western Europe and it’s not Western Europe’s time, its Eastern Europe’s time. But those things are not written in stone, and if the Security Council finds itself in a deadlock then they will work down the list to find one that they agree on and then that will go to the General Assembly for rubber stamping.


Dr. Damien Rogers is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Massey University's Centre for Defence and Security Studies.  He spent nearly a decade working within New Zealand’s intelligence community, including at the GCSB, Ministry of Defence, New Zealand Defence Force, and the Border Security Group of Immigration New Zealand.


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