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A comprehensive approach to national security and a more assertive New Zealand in regional security?

Line of Defence, Autumn 2017

Rouben Azizian - time for a New Zealand national security strategy?Rouben Azizian - time for a New Zealand national security strategy?


Should New Zealand take on a greater regional security role, and how well placed is it to do so? Why do we have a National Security Handbook, but no National Security Strategy? And is our approach to security too Defence-centric? Professor Rouben Azizian, Director of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies offers his insights in this exclusive Line of Defence interview.


LoD: You commented during your FutureNZ talk in Wellington last November that regional security architecture (RSA) is inadequate to deal with unfolding security threats. How do the new threats change things?

RA: We need to clarify amongst ourselves what we mean by regional security architecture. One problem I have is that when most commentators refer to regional security architecture they talk about multilateral institutions only – and of course ASEAN and its security arm- the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) as the centre of gravity or hub of regionalism.

This being the case, it is very easy to prove that our regional security architecture is inadequate because institutions by themselves cannot accomplish much if two other important elements of the RSA are not functioning properly: (i) if the bilateral relations between countries, especially the major countries like the US and China, are not based on mutual trust and strategic accommodation; and (ii) if the countries in the region are not able to agree to obligatory common rules and norms.

When we talk about regional security architecture we need to refer to all three interdependent mechanisms and processes: (i) multilateral institutions, (ii) bilateral relations, and (iii) development of common rules, principles and values.  So, if the US and China disagree on key rules and principles, I don’t think ARF can be really effective as a security institution. More broadly, existing security alliances in the region have to be refocused in order to enhance multilateral security arrangements and not compete with them.

ARF has been quite useful, but when it was put together in the 90s soon after the end of the Cold War it was expected that Asia Pacific security would be largely about transnational security issues – crime, terrorism, disaster management, and for those ARF has proven to be helpful – in building confidence, in creating mechanisms to deal with disaster management issues, terrorism and criminal threats.

But what we have now is an increasing geopolitical tension in the region emanating from China’s rise, resurgence of significant territorial disputes, and the US efforts to retain its regional leadership. ARF doesn’t have the muscle or unity to tackle those kinds of geopolitical issues.


LoD: You’ve suggested it may be time to look at designing a Helsinki-like process, with New Zealand taking a leading role. How, exactly, could New Zealand play this type of role?

RA: I am not suggesting that we totally replicate a Helsinki type process, however, we need a broader and more inclusive dialogue in the Asia Pacific; a dialogue that is also not so much top-down but bottom-up. What I mean by that is that if you look at Helsinki process there were a couple of distinctive features: smaller nations were quite instrumental in facilitating dialogue between the two blocs and the major powers, and the civil society was also very active in this process.


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In the Asia Pacific, including the ASEAN countries, civil society’s role in security matters is very modest. New Zealand through its strong civil society, could promote a broad dialogue in the Asia Pacific that includes government, non-government and businesses talking about the rules and principles of regional security that we can all agree to, which would be a compromise between different concepts and principles and national interests.

And New Zealand is a country that is non-intimidating. It doesn’t have a security alliance with any nation, unlike Australia, and it is also widely respected, has a good relationship with China and is developing a much stronger relationship with the United States as well. This allows initiatives from New Zealand to come across as non-biased and motivated by genuine interest in regional stability and peace without out taking any sides.


LoD: You’ve also stated that New Zealand’s rhetoric on regional security is not always matched by action, and that maybe it’s time to 'advance' NZ's interests in region rather than merely 'protect'. Would this potentially bring us into competition or conflict with others?

RA: In the New Zealand 2016 Defence White Paper, two terms attracted my attention. One is that New Zealand needs to “protect” its security interests in the region, and that New Zealand needs to “advance” its security interests in the region. To me, these are two very different things.

Protecting is something that all nations do all the time. For countries that don’t have particular ambition within the region, all they need to do is “protect”. But New Zealand declares “advancing” security as another important goal. To me that signals an intention to play a proactive role.

If New Zealand wants to “advance” its interests it can’t just be reactive to security challenges, such as deteriorating maritime environment, rise of nationalism and separatism and escalation of tensions in the South China Sea, but rather it should be more assertive in creating an environment that prevents destabilisation and insecurity. These are things important for New Zealand’s well-being and economic prosperity.

This is where I think “advance” means more “proactive” but I’m not seeing the “proactive” part yet.

Secondly, New Zealand claims to be a peace maker or honest broker supportive of a rules-based international and regional order, and yet I don’t see a particular push from New Zealand to help develop and harmonise those rules. This is unfortunate and not very farsighted as China and the United States seem to be in major disagreement about key aspects of the regional security order. And the new administration in the United States has added more tension and uncertainty into this by sending mixed messages about its perspectives on international and regional rules of behavior and engagement. 


LoD: What’s your assessment of New Zealand’s UNSC membership?

RA: New Zealand’s role in international security affairs very interestingly seems to be more prominent than its role in regional affairs. New Zealand has been quite vocal in the UNSC on the Middle Eastern issues, for example, but I can’t recollect how New Zealand has specifically promoted regional security issues in the UNSC, whether it’s North Korea where a more nuanced approach would have been helpful, or other major security issues in the region.

What I think is lacking in New Zealand foreign policy and diplomacy is a stronger regional voice and contribution on security issues. We see our troops in Iraq, they were in Afghanistan, and yet we have numerous challenges in our immediate neighbourhood.


LoD: Is New Zealand then more interested in enhancing its international prestige and showing loyalty to its close allies and friends, or is it the case that we’re not willing to run the risk of upsetting countries and governments closer to home?

RA: It is both, I believe. Being active on the global stage is definitely very good for international networking and advancement of national interests, no doubt about that. It is also not easy to decline requests for support from close security partners.

In some ways, doing it away from home is easier, because a supportive international role bears less responsibility than an expected leadership role in the country’s geographic neighborhood. But how do you justify it to your internal domestic public who can and are questioning this and ask why are we doing all this thousands of miles away when we have major security issues and resource challenges closer home. We are struggling to protect our maritime zone properly – and we have a significant one; and we have issues and potential explosive conflicts in the South Pacific that need to be looked at.

Finally, an imbalance in international and regional security roles can adversely affect the priorities, structure and resourcing of security and defence forces. 


LoD: We have a national security handbook, but you’ve suggested this falls inadequately short of a national security strategy. What needs to happen to make a national security strategy a reality?

RA: The first thing that needs to happen is that New Zealand Government needs to be more open minded and ready to open up discussions about security to a wider audience.

It is interesting that we have a Defence White Paper, invite submissions to the Defence White Paper and have numerous consultations on the Defence White Paper, yet Defence is only one of the many areas of national security, and some might argue that it’s not even the priority area for New Zealand. Thinking about security more comprehensively, we have other important national security issues that we need to take care of beyond defence and intelligence: economic security, environmental security, demographic security and law enforcement issues.

If the public is welcome and encouraged to discuss defence issues, why is the public not party to broader national security issues that potentially affect them more directly than defence issues?

This is where I see a disconnect. There could be some concern that a published national security strategy might complicate the functioning of some security agencies given their sensitivities, but most countries in the world have overcome these issues, and have a national security strategy.

A national security strategy doesn’t have to deal with classified information or interfere with specific roles of security agencies; it’s about developing a whole of society ownership of security that in fact could help the security agencies and their national reputation through more openness in the long run. National security strategy is about agreeing on broad principles, priorities, responsibilities and mechanisms of dealing with security issues.

Again, it is about being ready, proactive and preemptive. Didn’t the recent emergency responses in Kaikoura and Christchurch clearly demonstrate weaknesses of interagency coordination and lack of communication with the public?  

We need to de-bureaucratise security. I think the distinction between ‘handbook’ and ‘strategy’ is that ‘handbook’ is a very narrow and frankly boring term. Strategy is a much more exciting, democratic and appealing tool, and would definitely be appreciated by the New Zealand public and our international partners.

I have nothing against the handbook, but a handbook without a nationally owned strategy doesn’t go far enough in ensuring national security consensus and resilience.   


LoD: Who would you bring to the table?

RA: Civil society, business and the media all should all be part of the discussion. I have had some experience in my previous job facilitating this kind of whole of society national security strategy development processes in Asia-Pacific countries that are also small but less advanced and less democratic.  

We shouldn’t blame only government agencies for a lack of national security dialogue. The other problem is that civil society, in my opinion, while strong in New Zealand in general seems to be a little shy when it comes to security. This is something I don’t really understand because increasingly when we discuss security we are talking about human security and not just state security.

Security is about more than just guns and spies, it’s also about food, environment, economy, migration issues – it’s much broader, and I think in general we all accept that. But when it comes to practice, we’re somehow sticking to the same old processes and methods. This is not how security needs to be handled in the 21st century.


LoD: The 2016 Defence White Paper mentions that New Zealand takes an “all-hazards” approach to national security. Is a defence white paper the right place for talking about New Zealand’s overarching national security objectives?

RA: In some ways it’s reassuring but in others it might raise concerns because for some it may look like we are militarising certain aspects of security or putting Defence in charge of more than just traditional military issues. This is quite dangerous, because you’re potentially taking away influence, power and capacity building from other agencies that are probably more adequate in their specialist areas.

As an example, in relation to earthquakes or fires we hear criticism of Civil Defence coming even from the minister himself, which to me signifies that there are some issues with Civil Defence and that when Civil Defence is not coping then Defence is called in to help.

So, we have two paradigms. Is it that when we have a problem the Defence Force will come and fix it, or is it a better idea to ensure that Civil Defence is properly equipped, organised and structured so that we don’t have to call defence force every time? And that is where I see the danger of having a Defence White Paper but not having a National Security White Paper.

My concern is that we are overemphasising the defence side of things, and we have a Defence White Paper looking like a national security paper despite the fact it is not. I do hear from other agencies that the lack of national security strategy puts them in a peripheral position where they are becoming secondary to the Defence Force, and I don’t believe that’s the right way of going about it.


Professor Rouben Azizian is Director of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies. He was previously with the US Defense Department's Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu where he lectured and conducted research on the Asia-Pacific Regional Security Architecture, Diplomacy and Confidence Building, Security Sector Development, as well as US, Russian, Central Asian and Oceania security issues.


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