Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Where to go to war next?

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Royal New Zealand Navy.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

Seemingly out of the blue, the Government has come up with a proposal for a colossal $20 billion dollars of new expenditure on the military over the next 15 years. What’s the thinking behind this massive increase? Is it too much, or not enough? Does it mean New Zealand will be going to war more, or better defending the country’s economic resources and people?

New Zealand’s defence forces could be set to expand, with a focus on going into a greater number of new wars around the globe. That’s one interpretation of the Government’s new Defence White Paper released last week. But there are a few other views of where Government policy is taking the military. Unfortunately, there’s not really a full public debate occurring in this vital area, with politicians failing to provide leadership and diversity of views on the future of warfare and peace for this country.

Military expansion and opportunity – despite no real threats

New Zealand’s military is about to expand significantly, with new military engagements likely to occur throughout the world. That’s the possible outcome of the new Government policy according to some of the more considered analyses of the White Paper. Robert Ayson of Victoria University’s School of Strategic Studies says that at the heart of the new proposals, the Government wants “to have real military options for operations further afield”, and the new spending spree “is not just about preserving the status quo” but instead about new combat-ready capabilities – see: A Defence Force for New Zealand conditions?

Ayson suggests that the White Paper couches these ambitions within the more politically acceptable justifications of the military patrolling New Zealand’s backyard: “Yet appearances can be deceptive. New Zealand doesn’t need to spend $20 billion on capital items in the next dozen years to send non-combat ships around its extensive periphery. These plans only make sense if we also want options to deploy forces into potentially more dangerous places.” 

Ayson’s analysis of increased military foreign engagement is backed up by a Dominion Post editorial, Questions remain about $20 billion defence spend-up. The editorial also complains, “the paper is vague about which foreign hot spots defence forces might be sent to.”

Similarly, Gordon Campbell argues that New Zealand simply doesn’t face any significant threats that would justify the huge new expenditure. He argues that it’s going to happen because defence chiefs believe that “there are always other things we can find to do with some of this great stuff, once we’ve bought it” – see his in-depth analysis, On the new Defence White Paper

Campbell suggests that the new expenditure “looks more like a Defence bureaucracy seeking to perpetuate itself – by relying on WWII or Cold war precedents that no longer hold water – than a case based on genuine relative worth.” He details how even the National Government has strongly expressed its belief that New Zealand faces no likely threats. 

Campbell also wrote about the so-called Defence Pretence in April, asking: “Why keep spending billions on defence, when there’s no discernible threat?” He points to the Government’s own Defence Force Assessment of last year, which said “the threats that New Zealand faces are (a) limited and (b) of a nature that would give us time to upgrade and to prepare, should that ever be needed”. Furthermore, the type of potential threats of cyber threats and terrorism are hardly going to be prevented with a focus on “brand new batch of frigates or cargo planes or spotter planes”. 

Another military critic, blogger No Right Turn, says that the latest leap in military expenditure will simply enable the defence forces to “fight other people’s wars, the wars the New Zealand public opposes” – see: Toys for the boys

He takes issue with the new equipment being suitable for regional non-military needs: “The big fancy cargo plane NZDF wants as a replacement for the current Hercules? It will need a long runway to take off, won’t be able to land on rough airstrips, and there will be only one of them rather than four. So, the basic role of delivering aid to the Pacific after disasters, the one the planes actually get used for and that the public overwhelmingly supports, will be sacrificed for a gold-plated status-symbol useful only for providing logistical support for other people’s wars. Those ASW planes? What we actually need is something to monitor illegal fishing, do post-disaster damage assessments, and look for lost ships – not… imaginary submarines from thirty years ago.”

The blogger suggests the massive increase in expenditure is simply about keeping up with, and pleasing, the Americans and Australians. And according to NBR editor Nevil Gibson, the big expansion “will be welcomed by New Zealand’s allies, such as Australia and the US, who may detect a stronger commitment to defending this country’s wider interests than just the immediate maritime environment” – see: Defence paper takes right step forward

There is no doubt that the proposed increase in expenditure here comes in the context of rising defence spending in both our region and the world. Gordon Campbell outlines how New Zealand’s allies are “throwing money at Defence as if there is no tomorrow”, with the Australians planning to increase military spending by 81 per cent – see: The Defence Pretence

This escalating expenditure is also detailed by the University of Waikato’s Alexander Gillespie, who says “Collectively, the world has gone from spending $1675 trillion on weapons in 2001 to some $2590 trillion today. This is over 10 times the amount spent globally on foreign aid each year” – see: Defence spend hangs on our Pacific role

But hasn’t the international environment become more threatening, necessitating substantial upgrades to New Zealand defence capacity? This argument is highlighted by Stacey Kirk, who says that “A lot has changed since 2001” when then Prime Minister Helen Clark pronounced that New Zealand existed in a “benign strategic environment” – see: Not the ‘benign strategic environment’ of old, the Defence Force targets sights closer to home. She puts a particular emphasis on potential aggressive foreign motivations towards Southern Ocean and Antarctica, suggesting New Zealand needs to increase its expenditure to protect its resources there. 

However, the latest Global Peace Index gives New Zealand a ranking of fourth in the world for its peaceful environment – this suggests that our strategic situation is still relatively benign – see the 2016 report

No real debate or party differences?

Despite the huge significance and major spending proposed in the defence white paper, there has been very little public debate, or even strong political party reaction to it. As Chris Trotter says today, “hardly a voice has been raised in protest at this monstrous outlay on the NZ Defence Force” – see: How many houses could we get for $20 billion spent on defence?

The one exception has been from New Zealand First, whose defence spokesperson Ron Mark, who has strongly criticised it for its omissions, lack of imagination, and for not increasing defence spending enough – see his eight-minute interview with Paul Henry: NZ First: More than $20B needed for ‘sci-fi’ warfare. Mark proposes that more emphasis should be put on the use of drones, and rebuilding an air strike wing of the air force, even if the planes had to be built in New Zealand. 

Other opposition parties have been relatively silent. According to Victoria University’s David Capie this is possibly because it’s “a very politically astute White Paper”, and there’s little for them to disagree with – see: For all the thrill of cyber armies and drones, there’s more to NZ’s new defence strategy

 

We might therefore see a multi-party consensus develop in favour of the various proposals: “I suspect Labour’s caucus and perhaps even the Greens are actually pretty comfortable with the increased attention on our immediate neighbourhood and the stress given to non-traditional defence activities.”

Likewise, TVNZ reports that political editor Corin Dann “says the ‘general thrust’ of the report seems to have been welcomed, with even the Greens saying they’re pretty comfortable with it and he thinks that’ll give the Defence Force ‘the confidence it needs to go about trying to make those purchases’.” – see: Defence to replace frigates and planes – but with what?

In fact the Greens surprisingly gung-ho approach to the military can be seen in the statements of the party’s global affairs spokesperson Kennedy Graham, in Rosanna Price’s Inequality widens, global peace drops: is New Zealand doing enough? Graham argues that New Zealand is not contributing enough to UN-sanctioned military engagements, suggesting that the Greens might quietly welcome the new military expansion in the Government’s white paper. 

Is $20 billion too much or too little?

New Zealand First says the Government actually needs to double its spending on the military, taking defence spending as a proportion of GDP from one per cent to two per cent – see: NZ First: More than $20B needed for ‘sci-fi’ warfare.

For the strongest case for the need to upgrade the military’s equipment, see Karl du Fresne article for a foreign audience, in The Spectator – see: Off the radar. Published last month, before the white paper was released, du Fresne argues that “The gap between Australia’s and New Zealand’s defence capabilities is an embarrassment”, due to public complacency, and the fact that the defence sector simply doesn’t have much influence anymore in New Zealand. Previously, he says, “the Returned Services Association was arguably the country’s most powerful lobby group.”

The low funding of defence, according to the NBR’s Nevil Gibson, is explained in his editorial, Defence paper takes right step forward. He says: “The absence of thinktanks and defence commentators has created a vacuum filled largely by ideas promoted by pacifists and anti-American activists.  This wasn’t helped by the abolition under Labour of the air force’s strike wing, some strange procurement decision for unsuitable ships and armoured vehicles, and an emphasis on peace-keeping, humanitarian support and disaster relief.  Important though these last three items are, they are no substitute for a well-armed and trained force.”

Gibson salutes the proposed new expenditure, but bemoans it’s still much less than for social purposes: “A $20 billion spend over 15 years is nothing against the $16 billion that will be spent on health alone for the coming financial year.”

David Farrar also seems to suggest that current expenditure is too low, emphasizing “1% of GDP on defence is around half the world average”, and he details a range of OECD countries spending more – see: Defence spending to remain modest

But maybe much of the planned expenditure is unnecessary. Keith Locke argues that New Zealand should get rid of its frigates, rather than upgrade them, and that “New Zealand is better placed to be a peacemaker, not a warmaker, in our region” – see: First sell the frigates, not the patrol boats

In fact, why not just get rid of the military? Today Chris Trotter proposes the abolition of the defence forces, along the lines of Costa Rica, where “The monies previously spent on the military were reallocated to education and culture” – see: How many houses could we get for $20 billion spent on defence?

Trotter says the money could be better spent elsewhere in New Zealand: “Imagine the number of state houses and affordable apartments this country could build over the next 15 years with even half the $20 billion currently promised to the NZ Defence Force. Surely, in a democratic state, it is the adequate provision of health, education, housing and employment that should take priority over the vast sums required to purchase the most up-to-date weapons of war?”

Finally, for an indication of just how much the military environment and debate has changed, see Nicky Hager’s argument in favour of US warship visits to New Zealand – see: Let the US send a warship. He says that although such ships have been a key part of killing 100,000 in the Middle East, displacing millions, and making “the world a less safe place”, we should bring them here in order to prove that New Zealand has won our nuclear-free debate. And, for another Nicky Hager-related item, see TVNZ’s Q+A flashback item from 1988 – a one-minute video of Hager and others protesting against the last massive increase in defence spending – see: No more frigates

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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