Help PMA grow | Petition forms | Site map | PMA main page
How New Zealand Overshadows Australia, its Larger Neighbour
Saturday, April 29, 2000
By Ramesh Thakur and William Maley International Herald Tribune
CANBERRA - By any objective measure, Australia is a far more formidable power than New Zealand. Australia's population is five times bigger, its economy six times bigger, and its defense capability similarly more robust.
Yet in recent years New Zealand has been the more influential of the two neighbors in world affairs.
In 1989, Australia's former prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, campaigned to be the secretary-general of the British Commonwealth but lost. Ten years later New Zealand's foreign minister, Don McKinnon, contested the same post and won.
In 1992, New Zealand campaigned for one of the two nonpermanent seats on the United Nations Security Council in its group. Wellington focused its campaign against Sweden and won against the odds. Four years later, Australia campaigned for the same seat, focused its campaign against Portugal and lost.
Last year, Mike Moore, a former prime minister of New Zealand, won a three-year split term as director-general of the World Trade Organization.
Later in the year, Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister, sought the post of director-general of Unesco and lost.
How is this paradox of the less powerful being the more influential explained? New Zealand has nothing but its diplomacy to rely on in protecting, pursuing and advancing its national interests. Therefore it has to sharpen the skills of its diplomats to the highest level.
Australia, as a middle power, tries to use economic and military muscle in the region. In the wake of Australia's leading the intervention in East Timor last year that was mandated by the UN, some Australian ministers claimed that their country's robust demonstration of military capacity earned them greater respect and recognition in the region.
But many in Southeast Asia were critical of the Australian role and cynical of its motives. Australia was the only country that explicitly recognized Indonesia's annexation of East Timor, that signed a treaty with Indonesia's former President Suharto to exploit the oil and natural gas resources in the Timor Sea and that signed a security agreement with Jakarta in 1995.
Yet, when world opinion turned against Mr. Suharto, Canberra promptly abandoned a former friend and quasi-ally to lead an international force into Indonesian territory.
New Zealand's equally professional military performance in East Timor drew much praise and no criticism. Today it is New Zealand, not Australia, that is represented on the UN's high-level review of peacekeeping.
As a small nation, New Zealand is less threatening to others in the region than Australia. Meanwhile, Australia's prime minister, John Howard, portrayed Australia as deputy sheriff to the United States in the Asia-Pacific area - reinforcing the Asian perception that Australian foreign policy is an adjunct of the U.S. State Department. Proximity to the small island-states of the South Pacific predisposes New Zealand to consensual interaction. It is more attuned to the so-called 'Asian way' of avoiding confrontational politics.
Australia, on the other hand, has forgotten its colonial and racial history faster than Asians. Its neighbors resent being lectured on universal human values by those who failed to practice the same during European colonialism.
Lacking economic, military and political clout, New Zealand is forced to rely on the occasional exemplar role, for example in the anti-nuclear crusade of the 1980s.
New Zealand's criticisms of India's nuclear tests in 1998 were no less forceful than Australia's. But Indian officials said in private that they understood and respected Wellington's concerns, which were consistent with the anti-nuclear policy espoused a decade earlier against Washington.
New Delhi was furious, however, at Australia's perceived hypocrisy in having provided territory to Britain for nuclear testing in the past, and continuing to take shelter under the U.S. nuclear umbrella today, while denying to India the right to strike its own balance on the competing pulls of national security and international ideals.
Mr. Thakur, who has dual Australian-New Zealand citizenship, is vice rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo. Mr. Maley, an Australian, is associate professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. They contributed this personal comment to the International Herald Tribune.
*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Feel free to distribute widely but please acknowledge the source. ***