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By Mr N. Chisnall


The current Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018 shows a strong tendency for favouring the international relations ideology of idealism and focuses extensively on the Pacific region. Under the current Labour led coalition government, the foreign policies are indicative of their party values which tend to emphasize idealism over realism to better leverage the defensive power of a small state such as NZ. The publication also highlights how the Pacific region is a  key geopolitical strategic focus for foreign policy. This means the NZ Army must prioritise security and building strong relations with our Pacific nation partners. Security is the  underlying concern of the strategic outlook and as a small state, being seen as a peaceful  global peaceful citizen is a benefit. This is achieved by being a proponent for a Rules Based  International Order (RBIO). With our Western liberal democratic system aligning itself for  security with countries such as the US and Australia, this can come under tension when China  is our main trading partner. In order to manage security successfully, it is evident that NZ is  having to figure out how to best maintain trade relations with China, whilst also upholding a  strong friendship with Western countries. 


The international relations theory on idealism believes that the natural norm of the world is  peace and that war is an anomaly. It follows that states should live in harmony with each  other and a positive way of promoting this is through trade. New Zealand embraces this by  focusing on trade with other states, with China being our main trading partner. This interdependence is mutually beneficial for both states and results in a net positive outcome.  There is an assumption that trade fosters security due to both parties benefiting  economically, whereas war has a heavy cost in comparison to peace. 

NZ instills peace through trade as it is a small state which can not compete with larger militaries on its own. When it comes to the military, NZ strongly implements idealism into their defence framework. By participating in the RBIO, interoperability with other states such  as those in the Five Eyes or the Five Power Defence Arrangements is a priority This focus  has been evident where international deployments have usually been conducted with coalition  partners


The realist school of thought in contrast prioritises security over domestic prosperity because  it purports that all states are self-interested and that they are naturally in contention with each other. Generally speaking, NZ does not adopt this approach. The economy and population of  this small state can better leverage multilateralism by using institutions to foster peace and  trade. NZ is lacking in military capability compared to other nation states because a  population just shy of five million people limits the GDP output, which is exacerbated by a  military expenditure which is less than two percent. Instead, reliance on interoperability with  other states is the method in which the NZDF is utilizing in order to acquire excellent state  security in the form of friendly partner states. ASEAN participants, especially the US and Australia are key partners for working together with. These countries usually fight together, and it makes sense that NZ will fight their wars so that aid in security is reciprocated. 


The theory that international relations are socially constructed is propagated by  constructivism. NZ wants the image of a state who’s military focus is peaceful in nature.  Although NZ is a proponent for multilateral institutions due to this benefiting such a small  state, the focus of foreign defence policy is evidently regional. This geopolitical focus is emphasised given that the NZDF is expected to be able to lead initiatives around Antarctica  and the Pacific regions. 

Although NZ is a comparatively small state on a global scale, in the Pacific region, it is large  in contrast to the many island states. The Pacific region has strategic importance particularly for the US. China is expanding their influence in the Pacific and NZ is of strategic  importance for maintaining stability in this area. This is mutually beneficial as the US are needed for NZ’s security as they are the most powerful military in the world. In order to  maintain their good faith, it is necessary that we work alongside them and help maintain Western influence in the Pacific.  

With China’s expansion, NZ is having to juggle securing the Pacific region in favour of  Western influence but simultaneously upholding strong trade relations with China. They act  purely in their interest just like any other state, but their lack of democracy separates them ideologically from a Western liberal democracy. China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative is focused on furthering trade and acquiring greater economic power globally. NZ is aware of this fact, yet China is vital for NZ’s trade. In order to balance this, diplomacy is  used with China to ensure the countries are on amicable terms and mitigate a security threat.

Security Considerations 

NZ’s heavy reliance on multilateralism is beneficial in so far as peace is maintained via trade  and strong relationships with other states are upheld. Part of the interoperability of the  defence force means we can partake in missions with other countries. Being able to undergo  military operations with joint forces is beneficial as NZ can be seen as acting in accordance  with other states.  

The NZ Army remains interoperable with other nation states in many ways such as engaging  in exchanges, joint nation exercises and providing aid when required. This fosters positive  relationships and assists in understanding how to work respectfully with other cultures and ensures that missions can be conducted effectively whilst working towards a common goal. 

The increased threat posed by technological advancements means that NZ has had to invest  into modernisation. Space and information technology are now developing which has  opened up critical new trades which will assist in regional security. NZ is seeing that there  is an increasing threat in both the Pacific and Antarctic regions and thus, there is a clear focus on geopolitics. Being able to secure these areas is a primary focus as natural resources are at  stake in NZ’s vast EEZ and Antarctic regions. 

NZ’s security of the EEZ is a domestic responsibility and reliance on foreign states is not  expected. Therefore, NZ’s military has to adapt to accommodate security for this region. A  glaring weakness when viewed from a realist point of view is the lack of military spending.  This results in a limited defence capability. In times of war, this would be a particular  problem, but in more peaceful times, New Zealanders seem to be content with frugal  spendings on defence and money instead being spent domestically on social wellbeing. 

Geopolitical Considerations 

Climate change is an ever-increasing security issue for NZ at the moment. The impact that  it is having is felt most acutely in the Pacific region due to the vulnerability of islands to the  disasters of natural conditions. Being able to assist island states with aid is important as it ensures that governance can remain when things go wrong and people are able to live in safe  conditions. This show of good faith brings stability to these nations. An advantage to having  their support means when NZ is using their power through multilateral conventions, they  have more support by these friendly states. 

China is on the rise in the pacific and this can hinder NZ’s ability to utilize multilateralism to  its full extent. As China shifts into the Pacific region, maintaining positive relations with  them is important as they are a powerful state within this region. In order to maintain strong  security however, strong ties with the US must not be forsaken. NZ is currently in between  these two large powers who both have interests in the Pacific region which come into  contention with each other. The primary concern in this situation is the strategic control of the  Pacific. NZ needs to maintain both positive trade with China and also uphold strong  security ties with the US as their military might is a massive benefit to a small state.  

The contention arises with economic prosperity and security of the Pacific region with the US and China vying for power. This puts NZ in a tricky situation in foreign policy because the  status quo requires walking a fine line between both states. If NZ is seen as allying itself too much militarily with the US, China could see this as a threat as it could be seen as a  detriment to their interest in expansion into the region. China is expanding into this region  and are currently trying to buy out other smaller islands. NZ needs to be cautious of acting  outside of China’s interests because of our trade reliance on them.  


NZ’s reliance on multilateralism is vulnerable as it is reliant on other states being compliant to such institutions. The ability to leverage multilateralism for a small state such as NZ is not as enticing for larger powers. States will always work in their own self-interest and when  multilateralism is seen as a burden for more powerful states, they can choose not to consent  to them and play by their own rules. 

NZ’s interoperability with friendly states such as Australia and the US is constructed to  appear as benefitting multilateralism. This may be the case, but underlying this is the fact that these countries usually act as a single entity militaristically. In reality, this works out to be  more of an alliance. NZ historically has always gone to war with Australia and will appear to  do so in the foreseeable future. NZ’s capabilities are not as offensive as other states, but NZ can be viewed as the good cop in policing the Pacific and Antarctic regions for the benefits of  United States security and interests. 

Being able to have equipment and technology that can operate interchangeably with friendly  states is a positive security interest. It allows countries to work efficiently on common  interests by allowing greater cohesion and understanding of each other’s assets. 

NZ’s lack of military spending is indicative of the country’s perspective on war as a whole.  As a geographically isolated nation state, the only wars to have occurred on home soil were  domestic wars including intertribal conflicts and those between Māori and the Crown. Every  war NZ has had since then has been on international soil. There has not been an overt foreign  threat to domestic soil in recent history, yet NZ has engaged in numerous wars on foreign  land. This is indicative in NZ’s foreign policy to focus on abiding by the RBIO and only  going to war with partner states. 

The perception to be seen as a peacekeeper is important for New Zealanders as a whole. Foreign assistance helps some of the public digest the need for a defence force. The NZDF is  able to assist in disaster relief both domestically and offshore which enhances security within  the region. The public can thus accept the need for a military when viewed from this  perspective as it appears more pacifistic in contrast with other militaries. When NZ aligns its  capabilities with those of the US in particular, then some people may tend to view the NZDF as more antagonistic and unnecessary. Investing defence spending towards surveillance and  space is an ideal ploy as the information gained can be shared with friendly states and provide  security for the region. This method of defence is seen as a peaceful approach to  maintaining security.  

The realist approach in prioritising security over the economy seems unnecessary for NZ as  the country is not under a direct from foreign states at the moment. It therefore makes sense  that citizens would prefer money to be spent domestically rather than on what could be  considered unnecessary spending on defence. It is however imperative to maintain a regional  geopolitical focus. An increase in military spending at the moment could be viewed as  politically unpopular due to the economic implications that Covid-19 has had on people where the government has had to redistribute funding towards financial support packages.  Prioritisation of security over social welfare would make sense if tensions escalate on an  international scale where either NZ or its’ partners come under a direct threat, but at the  moment, the best must be made with the assets that are currently available. 


NZ’s reliance on idealism is a practical foreign policy. Given the Pacific region is generally  peaceful at the moment, hostile international threats appear low. Although a small military  has its risks, this is offset by the fact that NZ merely needs to maintain positive relations with  other states and be seen as a peaceful player by participating in the RBIO in order to maintain  the status quo. The geopolitical focus on the Pacific region is hugely beneficial, especially at  the moment when China is flexing their power in this area. Idealism currently seems the safer  option over realism at the moment because an overt alliance with a Western power may  unsettle NZ’s current relationship with China and possibly cause some antagonism resulting  in loss of trade. Diplomacy allows NZ to continue trade with China and remain loyal to other  Western states who share the same democratic values. This is done in a more covert manner than a blatant Western alliance which could cause a polarisation in the Pacific region.  Overall, NZ’s emphasis of utilizing multilateralism and investing a substantial portion of  resources to the Pacific region seems to be the most efficient method of enhancing national  security. 


  1. Ionut Serban, ‘Theories and Concepts in International Relations – from Idealism  to Realism’, Revista De Stiinte Politice, (No. 40, 2013). 
  2. Jenny Hayward-Jones, ‘China in the Pacific Islands: A Reality Check’ New  Zealand International Review, (Vol. 38, No 5). 
  3. Mahmood Monshipouri, ‘Human Rights in International Relations, and: Realism  and International Relations (review)’, Human Rights Quarterly (Vol. 23, No 1,  2001).
  4. New Zealand Government, Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018, (Ministry  of Defence, July 2018). 
  5. Raymon Krishnan and Bhargav Sriganesh, ‘One Belt One Road’, MHD Supply  Chain Solutions, (Vol. 48, No 2, Apr 2018). 
  6. <https://[]>, 27/04/2020. 
  7. <http://[]>, 27/04/2020.