The challenge Jacinda Ardern faces in dealing with a post-Brexit Britain

by Egemen Bezci and Nicholas Borroz / 12 April, 2018

Diversification is an important way for Ardern to advance New Zealand’s independence. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealand will need to walk a diplomatic tightrope as it diversifies its ties with larger powers - and that could start with a post-Brexit Britain.

When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visits 10 Downing Street in April 2018 for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), British Prime Minister Theresa May will likely propose their two countries expand economic relations. May wants a new British global leadership role in a post-Brexit era, and growing ties within the Commonwealth offers opportunities to do so. May wants to emphasize that “Brexit means Brexit”; the UK is forging ahead independent of the European Union.

Ardern should be open to diversifying New Zealand's economic relations with larger powers like the UK, since doing so reduces New Zealand’s dependence on any particular foreign patron. At the same time, though, she should keep in mind that diversification will test New Zealand’s foreign policy autonomy, as such relationships usually come with constraints.

Friends with butter benefits

In the past, New Zealand was very dependent on the UK and had little foreign policy autonomy. When New Zealand Prime Minister Walter Nash visited British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1959 (another instance of a Labour Prime Minister from Wellington visiting a Conservative Prime Minister in London), Macmillan was concerned about geopolitics, but Nash worried over butter prices.

By the time another Prime Minister meeting occurred in 1976, this time between Robert Muldoon and James Callaghan, the dynamic between the two countries was changing. Callaghan received a brief before the meeting stating: “The general Western interest in the area is best served when New Zealand (and Australia) [fill] the void left by the British withdrawal”; the UK thought New Zealand might be able to serve as something of an errand boy.

Egemen Bezci (left) and Nicholas Borroz say Jacinda Ardern should look to deepen ties with the UK - if she can strike a fair deal. Photo / supplied

But New Zealand was far from compliant in subsequent years, emerging as a small power that was independent in its foreign policy. It was active in the Australia, New Zealand, and United States Security Treaty (ANZUS), but it did not replace its dependence on the UK with dependence on the US. In 1986, in fact, New Zealand refused to allow American submarines capable of carrying nuclear weapons to dock in its waters, leading to New Zealand’s suspension from ANZUS.


Nowadays, the world is more multipolar, which means New Zealand must be more careful. In the second half of the last century, when New Zealand played the diplomatic game by balancing the UK off the US, Cold War bipolarity meant New Zealand was fundamentally in the Western camp; it was west of the Iron Curtain. But now there is a proliferation of large powers that act more independently; there are no longer two sides to the world order. Brexit itself is emblematic of this trend. A post-Brexit UK will not see eye to eye with the US (the concept of the Commonwealth as a new base of international influence indicates British hegemonic tendencies, which may put it on course for disputes with the US). And certainly one can say that China and the US – the two major powers with which New Zealand has the most comprehensive relations – often have disagreements evident in the headlines as the two countries’ impose tariffs against each other, sparking global fears of a trade war.

The ties that bind

As New Zealand diversifies its ties with larger powers – potentially to include the UK as the Commonwealth meeting offers Ardern a chance to do – New Zealand will need to walk a diplomatic tightrope. This is because when small powers like New Zealand deepen relations with larger ones, this constrains the smaller power. And this is particularly so in the modern multipolar world order. New Zealand, for instance, does not make loud noises about Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea; doing so would jeopardize milk exports. Pressure from Washington, on the other hand, means New Zealand contributes troops to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that have little alignment with New Zealand’s national interests. Adding the UK into the mix will only add more constraints.

This is not to say Ardern should ignore the opportunity to deepen economic connections with the UK. She should, if she can, strike a fair deal. Doing so would give New Zealand more economic manoeuvrability. Similar to Nash’s concerns about access to the British butter market, New Zealand is now dependent on access to China’s dairy market. Adding another export market like the UK would offer relief, because it would mean New Zealand’s eggs (or milk bottles, in this case) would not all be in one basket. If China were to demand New Zealand do something Wellington dislikes, New Zealand would have more space for defiance.

Diversification is an important way for Ardern to advance New Zealand’s independence, which has become a hallmark of the country’s foreign policy. It was the fourth Labour government, in fact, that took the strong anti-nuclear stance that led to New Zealand’s suspension from ANZUS and thus solidified New Zealand’s penchant for independence. But at the same time, Ardern must keep in mind that keeping these larger partners content paradoxically reduces New Zealand’s autonomy because each relationship adds new constraints. Deepening ties with the UK means Ardern would have to care about a lot more than just butter prices.


Dr. Egemen Bezci is a visiting scholar at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies.

Nicholas Borroz is a PhD candidate in International Business at the University of Auckland, and a former business intelligence consultant based in Washington, D.C.


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