The difference between power and influence has been a topic of debate for decades. Last year, Australia led an international peace-enforcement mission to East Timor and demonstrated a considerable military clout in the region. By any objective criterion, it is far more formidable a power than New Zealand. Australia’s population is five times bigger, its economy six times bigger and its defense capability is similarly more robust. Yet arguably, over the past few years New Zealand has been the more influential of the trans-Tasman twins in world affairs.

Our claim of superior New Zealand influence is something of a paradox. But consider the following examples.

In 1989, Australia’s former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser campaigned to be the secretary general of the Commonwealth, but lost. Ten years later New Zealand Foreign Minister Don McKinnon contested the same post and won.

In 1992, New Zealand campaigned for one of the nonpermanent seats on the U.N. Security Council. Conceding one seat to Spain, Wellington focused its campaign against Sweden and won against the odds. Four years later, Australia campaigned for the same seat, conceded one post to Sweden, focused its campaign against Portugal, and beat the odds to lose.

Last year, former New Zealand Prime Minister Mike Moore won a three-year split term as director general of the WTO. Later in the year, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans contested the post of director general of UNESCO and lost.

More examples could be adduced, but the drift of our argument should be clear. Instead of belaboring the point, let us reflect on possible explanations of the paradox.

The quality of diplomacy is not strained. The size of the New Zealand foreign service is much smaller than Australia’s. The margin of fault tolerance in New Zealand is correspondingly smaller. Mistakes and incompetence by just one officer will cost Wellington more dearly than Canberra. They will also show up more clearly, and the offending officer will be reprimanded and retrained, or retrenched. Encumbered with a bigger bureaucracy, and being federally structured, Australia suffers relatively more from interdepartmental wrangling and turf battles. With more limited overseas representation than Australia, New Zealand spends more time reasoning from first principles and on analyses from a more diverse range of sources.

Wellington 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 possible level. Australia, as a self-confessed middle power, tries to utilize economic and military muscle in the region. In the wake of East Timor, some Australian ministers have even been heard to elevate Australia into the ranks of major powers. They are wont to claim that their country’s robust demonstration of military capacity earned them greater respect and recognition in the region.

Many in Southeast Asia, on the other hand, were critical of the Australian role and cynical of its motives. Canberra was the only country to have explicitly recognized Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor, to have signed a treaty with Suharto to exploit the resources in the Timor Sea and to have signed a security agreement with Jakarta, in 1995. But when world opinion turned hostile to Suharto, Canberra promptly abandoned a former friend and quasi-ally to lead an international interventionist force into Indonesian territory.

New Zealand’s equally professional military performance in East Timor drew much praise and no criticism. As a bit player in the world, New Zealand knows what life is like for countries on the margins of the world’s political, military and economic centers of gravity. As a small nation, New Zealand is less threatening to others in the manner of the Prime Minister John Howard portraying Australia as the U.S. deputy sheriff. Far too often has Australian foreign policy been seen as simply an adjunct of the U.S. State Department. Wellington can relate to the sensitivity of the smaller nations of the world, who in fact make up the plurality of the family of nations.

Experience in Oceania predisposes New Zealand to consensual interaction. It is more attuned to the so-called “Asian way” of eschewing confrontational politics. Australians have forgotten their colonial and racial history faster than Asians, for whom Australia’s recent panic over the arrival of Middle Eastern boat people is an especially unhappy reminder of a discreditable past.

Neighbors are neither amused nor mindful at being lectured on universal human values by those who failed to practice the same during European colonialism, and now urge them to cooperate in protecting Australia from the burden of unwanted victims of persecution.

The superiority of Western ways has remained a constant theme over the past few centuries, only the universal truths of Christianity have been replaced by the universal rights of humankind. At the same time Australia rejects the right of the U.N. or any outsider to comment on the plight of Aborigines! None of this helps build Australian influence.

Lacking economic, military and political clout, New Zealand is forced to rely on the occasional exemplar role, for example in the antinuclear crusade of the 1980s. New Zealand is neither rich enough to bribe nor strong enough to bully others. But it is skillful enough to turn these apparent liabilities into assets, and principled enough to inspire.

Its criticisms of India’s nuclear tests in 1998 were no less forceful than Canberra’s. But Indian officials said in private that they understood and respected Wellington’s concerns, which were consistent with the antinuclear policy espoused a decade earlier against Washington. But Delhi was furious at Australia’s perceived hypocrisy in having provided territory to Britain for nuclear testing in the past, and continuing to shelter under the U.S. nuclear umbrella today and hosting facilities that are integral components in the worldwide U.S. nuclear infrastructure, while denying to India the right to strike its own balance on the competing pulls of national security and international ideals.

Interestingly, after the tests, New Zealand was invited to join the New Agenda security coalition but Australia was not, even though much of the coalition’s agenda was in fact taken over from the 1996 Report of the Canberra Commission. And even after Interfet, it is New Zealand, not Australia, that is represented on the U.N.’s high-level review of peacekeeping.

We rest our case.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.