New Zealand’s weeks of risk aversion on ISIS
4 Nov 2014|

Prime Minister of New Zealand Addresses General AssemblyTomorrow, New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key, now entering a third term after September’s general election, is going to do something very rare in his leadership: he’ll be delivering a major speech on security. The reason for this has little, obvious connection to New Zealand’s successful campaign for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Instead, it’s a case of the ISIS effect, and the speech will address two main issues. The first will be the Prime Minister’s explanation of the legislative changes his government wants to make to deal with returning foreign fighters, an issue which has also exercised Australia. The second is to lay out the options for a possible New Zealand military contribution to the US-led coalition.

What has been strange about the second of these issues is the Key government’s extraordinary hesitation in making any military commitment up until now. The election campaign came and went, as did the Security Council vote, and still New Zealanders have been none the wiser as to what’s going to be done. This would have been understandable if the government had been set against the coalition’s purposes. But Key has stated clearly that ISIS is such a dangerous affront to fundamental norms of internationally accepted behaviour and that it’s right in principle for others to commit military forces against it. In mid-October the Prime Minister also indicated that it’d be rather unusual for Wellington not to join the fray given the commitments of many of New Zealand’s closest security partners. He has also been willing to entertain questions about the range of possibilities in terms of what New Zealand might offer, from extra humanitarian aid to deploying special forces.

The New Zealand list doesn’t extend to a combat air contribution because of decisions made to disband that capability several years ago. This marks a fundamental difference in what the two trans-Tasman neighbours could offer in the first place. But New Zealand’s slowness to commit isn’t just about capability differences. After all, the Abbott government was quick to announce that Australian special forces were part of the military package being sent to the Middle East to await further instruction. There’s a difference, it seems, in tone and philosophy. That was evident in the Prime Minister’s comments after a weekend trip to Perth where he saw his Australian counterpart. ‘The rhetoric from Tony Abbott’, Key said in a radio interview, indicated that Australia saw ISIS as having the potential to pose a ‘catastrophic global threat.’ But Key’s comments suggested that, while his government agreed with this ‘very, very, very strong’ diagnosis, it was less sure about a similarly robust response.

Perhaps the waiting has made the decision even harder for the New Zealand government as the situation in Iraq (and Syria) has been moving so quickly. Signs that the coalition’s attempts to degrade ISIS may not be having all of their desired effects may be inducing additional caution. The Key government will also be conscious of domestic opinion. New Zealand chose not to join Australia in the very select coalition of the willing that invaded Iraq in 2003. As Key has noted, the difference this time is that Iraq has asked for assistance. But that may not be clear or important in the public mind. Moreover, the New Zealand military capability most likely to be of direct use—special forces—is also the one whose commitment is most likely to cause domestic controversy. Many New Zealanders who mistakenly treated Afghanistan as a large peacekeeping mission came to realise that the special forces sent there were involved in some very hairy situations.

Yet it’s still not easy to explain Wellington’s exceptional slowness here. At times, an abundance of caution can easily come across as a lack of decisiveness—a funny thing for a governing party that did so well at the recent polls. So it’s a good thing then that nobody would regard New Zealand’s decision to commit forces of any kind to the anti-ISIS coalition as monumentally important to the overall disposition of military power in the Middle East.

Robert Ayson is professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and adjunct professor with the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.