Defence and Foreign Policy

How to order and control the use of arms is a problem that is as old as history. It is a major problem in countries where generals are over-mighty and the rule of law is weak.  But even today in the English-speaking world we still live under the four-hundred-year shadow of Cromwell. We meticulously maintain the wariness about armed force which we learnt from him, expressed in ancient conventions about not parading in towns without permission, not displaying arms except in emergencies, not entering the grounds of Parliament unless invited and other half-forgotten rules.

Happily for New Zealand these are largely historical recollections. For us it is now the part that the armed forces play in foreign policy that most closely affects the role and operations of our Defence Force.

The first point to make is that defence is a branch of foreign policy. That is not true if you are invaded, then the roles are reversed and foreign policy, the search for allies and help, becomes part of your defence.  But for most countries and for most of the time defence is one of the methods by which a country supports and defends its interests in the world.  There are times when these interests may be challenged by force or when common interests, such as freedom of navigation, may come under attack.    In those cases the backing of arms, or the ability to back them with arms, is essential.  It is a core support for diplomacy, for other countries will have little trust in declarations of common interest if the arms are not maintained to back them up.  “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments, “said Frederick the Great who knew a thing or two about both.

This is particularly true of New Zealand which is virtually immune from the risk of invasion.  Living behind a thousand miles of sea in every direction we are protected by the world’s largest moat and no-one could seriously threaten us without first taking Australia.  So we draw a distinction between our security needs and our security interests.  Our security needs are small.  Free from fear of an invasion our security needs come down to protection of our fisheries and economic zone.  But for a nation which depends on trade, and trade with distant partners along lengthy sea routes, our security interests are enormous. We protect and advance these interests through diplomacy, our foreign policy, in the first instance, but also through maintaining a defence force which can join with others in protecting our common security interests, as we have done in every conflict in which we have fought.

Diplomacy and war are more often than not viewed as opposites.  Diplomacy is about the arts of peace, of negotiation, compromise and a mutually-agreed settlement. War is what happens when diplomacy breaks down, symbolised by the breaking of relations and return of ambassadors before the combat begins.    Few would go as far as the Prussian general, von Moltke, who said that “the politician should fall silent the moment that mobilisation begins” but those impatient with the diplomats’ web of words and polite evasion might have a secret sympathy with him.

Nonetheless the view that diplomacy and defence are oil and water, cat and dog, is obviously false, contradicted by the everyday experience of both generals and diplomats.  In war diplomacy is crucial in the search for a solution, in dissuading possible opponents and in holding alliances together until victory.  In the Second World War, New Zealand’s diplomacy run by six people was as important and influential as the combat successes of its thousands of troops.  But even in peace defence and diplomacy are important in reinforcing each other, something I learnt when I was New Zealand High Commissioner in Singapore in the late 1970s.

New Zealand then maintained a regular battalion in Singapore along with an air transport squadron and there were regular visits by both our fighter aircraft and naval frigates.  These New Zealand forces had been in the region since 1955, the longest overseas deployment in our history.  Their original purpose, to help defeat the Communist insurgency, had long since been achieved. They had stayed on for foreign policy reasons, as a practical demonstration of our commitment to the stability of Singapore and Malaysia.

I once asked the Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, why our presence was helpful, given that neither New Zealand’s nor Australia’s forces would be much help if a major threat developed.  He gave two reasons.  “You anchor our southern flank. We can look north knowing that the south is held by friends.  And you are a link to the United States ensuring that Washington will not look the other way if trouble comes.”  Certainly my influence with the Singapore Government was greatly strengthened by the presence of our forces. Their presence showed that we meant what we said about the importance of the region to us.

So the idea that diplomacy and defence are incompatible, opposite sides of the board, is an error and it is dangerous. The two go hand in hand for blunt force on its own is often pointless as well as wrong.  The clearest guide on when and how to use armed force is still a Prussian who fought in the Napoleonic wars, Carl von Clausewitz.  He is difficult, even in English translation, and he has had a bad press.   His most famous saying, indeed the only one most people have heard of, that “War is the continuation of policy by other means” is widely misunderstood. It sounds cynical and aggressive: if necessary, take what you want by force, but what he meant was a permanent truth about war, so crucial that its neglect has haunted powerful nations even in our own day. War, he argued, is one possible instrument of your foreign policy and if in the excitement of mobilisation you lose sight of those foreign policy aims you risk becoming trapped in the bog of pointless warfare.

In other words, if you go to war it must be with a rational and achievable aim in mind and if you have misjudged and the aim turns out to not be achievable then you should make peace.   A less commonly quoted but even more important saying of his is “War has its own grammar but not its own logic”.  The grammar is the art of waging war, of deployments, patrols, battles and sieges, which is the job of military professionals.    The logic of war is political, the reasons you took up arms in the first place and if that logic disappears then you should stop fighting.  “Mission creep” would have worried Clausewitz; at the policy level he firmly believed in the old army maxim ‘don’t reinforce failure’.     

The example of his time was Napoleon who from temperament or from military success lost sight of the need to make war the servant of larger policy objectives.  Where the French revolutionary government had gone to war to defend and spread the revolution, Napoleon as emperor had no consistent objectives in foreign policy other than simple military dominance and expansion. He wandered about Europe with little aim other than to make war on his opponents which he did very successfully. Like Alexander the Great before him and Hitler afterwards the excitement of war was a sufficient inducement to keep going.

Those examples and many others illustrate the great difficulty about Clausewitz’s argument. His cool and eminently sensible advice has always been hard to follow and it always will be. The calm of his study is far removed from the tangled emotions unloosed by fighting. War and love may touch the deepest of human feelings and neither of them are easily reined in by rational argument.  It is still dangerously easy in a democracy to agree to go to war but politically very difficult to accept a less than triumphant peace.   Media criticism makes it more not less difficult for governments to say they got it wrong. The careers of both politicians and commanders may be at stake and beneath it all is the perverse human tendency to press on along a hopeless course rather than face the difficulties of changing it.

These are obvious truths of human nature but the penalty for ignoring Clausewitz is still there.  In Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan the United States has had unsuccessful outcomes because it has confused military activity with policy aims or has allowed these aims to be pushed aside by becoming absorbed in events on the battlefield.

With the theory briefly sketched, let me give two practical examples of where in my opinion New Zealand made good use of the linkages between defence and foreign policy, and two examples where it did not.

The first and hugely successful one is the Second World War.  From an emotional point of view New Zealand went to war from a sense of imperial loyalty.  As the British High Commissioner reported in 1939, no New Zealand government could have lasted a day if it had held back.    Underneath this though was more than sentiment.  Many saw Nazism as a foul doctrine that would have to be crushed.  If it had succeeded and Britain had fallen New Zealand’s independence would have lasted only for the days required for a German fleet to reach Auckland.

So we went to war for the simplest of foreign policy objectives: to be ourselves. The thousands of New Zealanders who served in the forces made a well-recognised contribution to the outcome as did those at home who helped feed Britain and half a million American servicemen in the Pacific. But New Zealand, as one of only six allies who fought through the whole of the war, also acquired a significant influence on its outcome. From 1943 onwards Britain and the US began to think seriously about the shape of the post-war world, a process in which New Zealand took an increasing part, principally through the Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, and the head of his department, Carl Berendsen.     

Fraser was determined to see the establishment of a world body able to stop aggression and he and his advisers had done more thinking than anyone else on how to phase out the widespread colonial system.  There was a blank space on colonies in the first draft of what became the United Nations Charter; Fraser as chairman of one of the committees introduced two whole chapters on colonialism which became the guide and spur of anti-colonialism at the UN till our own age. This is a remarkable example of the influence of a small country. It sprang from New Zealand’s skill in using its equally remarkable defence effort to help achieve its foreign policy aims for the shape of the post-war world.

My second example of how defence and foreign policy could reinforce one another is less widely recognised.   It is the reshaping of South East Asia in the decade between 1965 and 1975. It would have delighted Clausewitz in its skilful use of arms to help achieve a foreign policy success.

The end of the world war and subsequent decolonisation led to weak and unstable states in South East Asia and the success of Chairman Mao in China convinced many of the young that his doctrine and not parliamentary government was the wave of the future. New Zealand joined Britain and Australia in 1955 in an effort to defeat a Communist insurgency and stabilise Malaysia and Singapore as they approached independence.  Anti-insurgency tactics combined with willingness to grant independence worked in those countries but by 1965 the region as a whole looked more unstable than ever. The newly-independent states were militarily weak and economically poor. The northern states, South Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and the Philippines were all threatened by insurgencies and the largest state, Indonesia, had warded off one Communist coup and was about to suffer another.   It was little wonder that Chairman Mao was a believer in the ‘domino theory’ and told his North Vietnamese ally that the states in the region would fall one by one to Communist control.

The British were exhausted and were withdrawing from the region. Without American involvement Australia and New Zealand faced the nightmare of dealing with a hostile South East Asia on their own.  New Zealand had no illusions about the likely success of the American intervention in Vietnam but felt that it was essential to do what we could to retain an American presence in the region, and so began our involvement in that unhappy country. The outcome was a paradox which the fog of that war has obscured even today.  The tragedy of Vietnam brought also the deliverance of the countries to the south.  Behind the wall of American military might, and stimulated by the huge spending on the war as well as generous access to the American market, the regional scene was transformed over the ten years of the war.   As Lee Kuan Yew said to the American ambassador in Singapore, “You did what you were supposed to do, you gave us time to get our own houses in order”.  When Saigon fell in 1975 the ASEAN countries had become stable and increasingly prosperous and New Zealand’s worries about South East Asia were over.

By the law of unforeseen consequences this outcome contributed to the first of my negative examples of what can happen when the roles of defence and foreign policy are confused. South East Asia had for years been our main security worry and was seen by many as the major reason we needed the American guarantee contained in the ANZUS treaty.   With the worry gone, some began to ask whether that guarantee was still needed, or whether it might be more likely to draw us into other American efforts which were less in our interest.  So, though the battle over visits by nuclear-armed ships was presented as a battle over New Zealand’s attitude to nuclear weapons, it was in fact a battle over foreign policy.  It was argued that New Zealand had become too close, too submissive, to Washington’s foreign policy wishes.  But in the heat of single-issue politics the wider foreign policy implications were ignored.    The Labour Party Executive Council said “There is no need to accommodate the American point of view” and the party president, Margaret Wilson, later said, “We did not think about the foreign policy implications – that was not our world”.   Clausewitz would have shaken his head in bafflement.

By trial, and in this case I believe error, we then discovered what we should have known all along – that our foreign policy could not function without at least a comfortable relationship with the United States.    Without that, not only were our links with Washington weakened but also our influence in Canberra, Tokyo, London. the European Union, the ASEAN states and even China. It testifies to the magnitude of our error that we spent the next quarter of a century working to recover the easy American relationship we had enjoyed before the quarrel over nuclear ships.

Let me give you another example of where we got Clausewitz wrong and muddled the sphere of defence with that of foreign policy. In 1987 a coup in Fiji overthrew the recently-elected government, an event as distasteful to New Zealand as to many others in the Pacific. This event became unhappily entangled in the hijacking of an Air New Zealand plane at Nadi a few days later. The Prime Minister, without seeking the views of either Defence or the Foreign Ministry, toyed with the idea of despatching a small force by air and instructed the force to be put on standby at Whenuapai. It was never clear what his aims were. The lone hijacker was after some hours knocked out by a member of the aircrew with a bottle of whisky, and a small New Zealand force could never have reversed the coup itself.  Indeed the arrival at Nadi airport of a planeload of New Zealand troops might have ended in disaster given the jittery state of the Fijian commanders after the coup and the fact that the airport was garrisoned by a battalion of experienced Fijian soldiers.  In this case the soldiers rescued the policy-makers from the pit; the senior defence officers in Wellington held up the proposed deployment until the hijack was over.

These examples, good and bad, simply confirm the ageless relevance of what Clausewitz was urging: the need before using any force to consider carefully the aims of the operation and whether these aims can be met with the resources you have.    The world, though, has moved on since the Napoleonic age and his principles now have to be applied in situations he could never have foreseen.

The first and most important point is that we look at war in quite a different way from his time.  Then war had for long been regarded as a natural and proper occupation of governments, the only issue was how best to regulate and direct military operations. The horrors and loss of life of the great wars of the twentieth century have radically altered this view. War has been de-legitimised.  It is no longer something to be approved or at least accepted as natural and unavoidable; it has instead become an unfortunate possibility which on some occasions has to be reluctantly faced.  For us it is no longer a fact of life; war has become a matter of choice.  With no foreseeable fear of being attacked, we can choose whether or not we should intervene in Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan.  Our terminology has changed to reflect this. Once every European government had a War Office and a Minister of War to head it.    Such bald terminology is now quite out of fashion and instead we all have Defence Forces and Defence Ministries.

There is a second reason for the fading of the concept of mass warfare. It was held as self-evident over the last two centuries that war should be fought with all available resources, a view made possible by the rapid transport newly provided by railways and motor transport. This has now been overturned. The existence of nuclear weapons has killed mass warfare. Peter Fraser and others hoped that the establishment of the United Nations would prevent any further world wars. It has, but the explanation lies more in the existence of these terrible weapons than the uncertain actions of the Security Council.    

 The threat of the mushroom cloud has certainly not put an end to combat.    Human greed and ambition can find many ways to make trouble while staying safely below that cloud.     But the existence of nuclear weapons means that the wars of mobilisation, when the big divisions and their tanks rolled across frontiers, have become historical.   Mass warfare, which began with Napoleon and expanded from the American civil war to the defeat of Hitler has become as distant from modern warfare as cavalry. While we struggle to find ways to control the awesome force of nuclear weapons it is worth remembering that it has at least delivered us from the wars on the huge scale of the last century.

That war has become a matter of choice has brought much bigger changes than just the names of ministries.  The dramatic changes of the past half-century have further tightened the links between defence and foreign policy.  Civilians and soldiers have increasingly shared in the varied tasks of peacekeeping.  Peacekeeping though unknown to Clausewitz is a classic example of his famous dictum.  It is a foreign policy task sought by defence means.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the rise of fighting in failed or failing states there has been a spectacular rise in the number of peacekeeping operations approved by the United Nations.    They are now the predominant form of deployments by our Defence Force.     Though they vary in size and delicacy from patrolling ceasefire lines to enforcing a settlement, they all use military means to demonstrate New Zealand’s interest in being a good international citizen.

We had no obvious national interest in helping to maintain peace in the Sinai or Angola but we did have a considerable interest in supporting the UN’s efforts to do so. Nor did we have an obvious national interest in assisting a naval blockade of Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, a point made with some irritation by the captain of a dhow laden with contraband when he was intercepted by the frigate Wellington.  “My grandfather said you New Zealanders came here to trouble us years ago. Why do you keep coming back to trouble us again.”  As with all our peacekeeping deployments, we keep coming back in the hope of gradually building a stronger rule of international law.

Peacekeeping, though it requires good combat training, also calls for skills much more civil than military. It requires a greater involvement with civilians and civilian agencies than any other military activity.  For a start a peacekeeping operation may be the result of public concern as much as of any foreign policy calculation.   It is often the result of television pictures of trouble in some faraway country, and the distance of the country is less important than what is happening there. Vivid and instantaneous coverage gives us a feeling of moral responsibility for what is happening and governments respond to the cry that “something must be done”.  So peacekeeping tends to follow the cameras and what is beyond the reach of the cameras may become diplomatically invisible.  Killings in Rwanda brought international outrage; those in Liberia did not.

If the demand for a peacekeeping operation arises from civilian concern it also by its nature involves much more varied and complicated relations with civilians. The foreground is not swept clear as it is for commanders in a war.  Peacekeepers have the messier task of protecting those among whom they live, some of whom will be hostile, and of keeping order without the advantage of military rule. They have to work closely with what may be a multiplicity of civilian or non-governmental agencies who are helping the populace but who also have their own objectives. This can call for greater diplomatic patience than most diplomats can muster.  Operations in a number of countries – Somalia is an example – have been hampered by poor relations with the relief agencies.

These are not just problems for commanders. In Bosnia and elsewhere quite junior officers have found themselves having to mediate among rival factions, settle property disputes, reopen schools and establish comfortable drinking and card-playing relations with local notabilities. Often this has to be done on the spur of the moment with no opportunity for guidance other than your own common sense, and where a misjudgement may lead to a flare-up in the fighting. Junior officers have enough to learn without becoming human rights lawyers as well, but a basic knowledge of international law and other less military skills have become essential.

To further disturb the calm of Clausewitz’s study, the past two or three decades have seen a remarkable rise in the influence and reach of the media. The power of the internet and television is altering the basic distinction between professional military operations and the government policy that directs them.    Over the centuries commanders might be vexed by lack of financial support or policy swings at home but the politicians in government did not seek to direct their day-to-day decisions. The doctrine was that governments determined the aims and strategy of armed intervention, leaving it to commanders to apply the grammar of war, to implement the strategy in the way their skill and professional experience suggested. This was a sensible division of responsibilities, but in fact the realities of distance and slow communications meant that until quite recently governments could not do otherwise.

The doctrine separating aims and action is as sensible as ever but it is now threatened by the advent of rapid communications, enabling both immediate reporting from the battle and a flow of detailed instructions from home on how to fight it.  Political leaders can now if they please tell their commanders when and how to give battle. The professional decisions of commanders are under constant threat from the close coverage of war news and from the decisions politicians may take under pressure from this media interest.    Television has encouraged the rise of the armchair generals and given them a voice, and this must affect the confidence of generals commanding, at the least enhancing their caution.    They will need to be politically aware and may come to feel it necessary, as some American generals have, to cultivate their own political support at home.

In today’s fragmented politics citizens in a democracy are unlikely to be unanimous about going to war.  Even where a majority supports the decision, at least initially, there will be people and groups strongly opposed who can wage an anti-war campaign with energy and public relations skills not always possessed by those defending the deployment.  Unless the conflict shows early success their efforts are likely to gain in public favour.  Every glitch and complaint, problems of food and weaponry, even that perennial, the issue of unsatisfactory boots, will be seized on to suggest that the conflict is wrongly conceived.  A media looking for dramatic stories is a natural ally for those campaigners.  Some, perhaps a good number, of these exciting revelations will not withstand serious investigation, but all is fair in love and anti-war campaigns and unproved allegations are almost as useful as a genuine scandal.  The rise of social media has rendered the old saying truer than ever: an ‘alternative fact’ flies round the world while truth is still getting its unsatisfactory boots on.

This sort of media coverage would certainly have affected the commanders in the Second World War.   Let me give an example. The Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, in 1939 chose Bernard Freyberg to command the New Zealand Division then being formed.  Freyberg was highly regarded, both by Winston Churchill and the British Army high command and he made a magnificent success of training and shaping the division which came to be regarded by the German commander, Rommel, as the best he faced.

The tide of war found Freyberg in 1941 the commander of a scratch allied force hastily assembled to defend the island of Crete. Without any air cover and with little artillery it was not surprising that the island fell in three weeks, but no commander looks good in defeat and some of Freyberg’s own officers complained directly to Fraser that the battle had not been well managed.  New Zealand lost a large part of its war effort in the disaster of Crete and Fraser naturally had to consider whether to replace his general.  Being Fraser he made thorough and systematic enquiries, including asking several senior British generals.   They were all agreed on Freyberg’s merits.    Wavell, the British supreme commander, sent a brief message saying, “If you don’t want Freyberg, I do”.  Fraser was convinced and retained his general, with famously successful results as the war went on.

He had the luxury of time to take careful soundings and make up his mind over several weeks because wartime censorship was tight and no-one, not even his Cabinet colleagues, knew of the extent of the disaster or of Freyberg’s shortcomings in handling it.  That would not be possible today.   Any modern general who presided over a defeat much less dramatic than Crete would be the subject of a media campaign calling for his replacement, and any government that loyally supported him would be hounded by broadcasts and editorials complaining that the government was trying to cover up its mistake, that it was putting the lives of our troops at risk by not replacing him and so on. It seems doubtful whether even such a competent commander as Freyberg would survive today.

So the relationship between defence and foreign policy, always complicated, has become even more complicated in today’s world.  The comfortable doctrine that strategy was the province of politics and its implementation the responsibility of military professionals has been blurred and weakened by the profound shift in our underlying view of war, the easy communications with soldiers in the field, the coverage of the conflict by television and the growing importance of deployments like peacekeeping which require much closer civil-military cooperation. Now every commander, however, junior, has to consider the prospect of working in the glare of publicity and subject to a much wider scrutiny than soldiers have ever had to face in the past.  That war is the continuation of politics by other means has now a deeper truth than ever Clausewitz could have foreseen.

Lecture given at Canterbury University in April 2021

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