New Zealand in the Five Eyes Intelligence Network: Assessing the Challenges and Benefits of Membership

New Zealand in the Five Eyes Intelligence Network: Assessing the Challenges and Benefits of Membership

New Zealand has been seen as the weakest link in the FVEY as well as the “soft underbelly”  with a population of 5 million people, NZ is a small state functioning within a series of military and economic arrangements dominated by much larger states. NZ has tried to make the most of its FVEY membership to promote its security and sovereignty.


However, FVEY and its FTA with China and other economic agreements have seriously eroded NZ’s sovereignty and control over its borders and people. One could argue that NZ never had much independence, to begin with. It was heavily dependent on the UK until the early 1970s when the imperial preference scheme ended. By  the 1980s, it launched the most ambitious neoliberal projects in the western world, making it the most open and therefore, one of the most economically vulnerable states in the OECD. It is still the weakest link in the FVEY.

In judging NZ strength and weakness in 2020 and its FVEY membership, there seem to be four elements which are central to the analysis:

  • Role of the state versus the people
  • Relationship between the NZ government and the United States
  • Relationship between the NZ government and PR China
  • Relationship between the NZ government and Russia

Strength and weakness seem to depend on the correct balance of these elements, and there appears  to be no clear consensus on what is the best way forward. 

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First, the argument is made that NZ governments use FVEY technology to police its populations, to spy on Indigenous peoples and left-wing  movements, using the guise of anti-terrorism or national security. Snowden argued as much in his famous revelations in 2013. The National Party seems to be more targeted with this narrative through Nicky Hager and others – they are seen as the most likely to reduce individual rights in favour of the state. In this argument, state sovereignty (and the firm hand of government) is strengthened by membership in the FVEY while individual rights are reduced. This may or may not imply a too-close relationship to the other FVEY partners.


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The second element relates to the US having too much control over NZ, including being able to access intelligence without the knowledge of the government. Hager’s 1996 book is particularly important here, as is his later work. Here the argument is that the US uses the FVEY network to muscle in on the state sovereignty of its four allies, with commensurate danger for states and citizens. The alliance serves US interests primarily, and the cost-benefit for NZ is not ideal. Nevertheless, like the mafia, NZ cannot leave. Hager had  noted that even during the period when NZ was outside of ANZUS (1986-2012), NZ continued to provide information to FVEY, but received in return less detailed information because of its outside status vis a vis ANZUS.

First, the argument is made that NZ governments use FVEY technology to police its populations, to spy on Indigenous peoples and left-wing  movements, using the guise of anti-terrorism or national security.

The relationship with Russia relies far more on personalities and is not confined to NZ. Instead, right of centre parties and leaders seem to have recast Russia as a status quo great power with a large economy understandable geopolitical ambitions. This varies according to  which party is in power. The National government under Key and English took a hard line on Russia. At the same time, the Labour-New Zealand First coalition seemed initially to take a softer line, primarily due to NZF leader Winston Peter’s desire to have an NZ-Russia FTA. During the Cold War era, NZ was seen as a “weak link” under Labour (David Lange in particular), drawing away from the US and closer to the USSR. NZ was a “friend” but not a partner in the western military security architecture.

Wellington, New Zealand (Unsplash)

By contrast, National is currently presented as being softer on China than Labour, although it was under Clark’s Labour government that NZ signed onto the FTA. Brady has been particularly critical of China and the National’s approach. The Labour-NZF coalition gets higher marks. However, more conservative criticism from outside seems to lump National and Labour together as the “soft underbelly” and makes little distinction between them. This is problematic as the Labour government has done a better job protecting NZ sovereignty than National. The idea that Labour is too leftist and that this represents an opening for China is incorrect on many counts. In either case, both parties have done a poor job until recently of protecting NZ’s sovereignty. China’s soft power and sharp power have both penetrated NZ deeply. Labour has slowly and carefully been playing catch up, but it is probably too little too late. NZ, after all, has an FTA with China, and its economy is very tightly linked in with China, giving that PRC tremendous leverage over many aspects of foreign and domestic policy. 

The idea that Labour is too leftist and that this represents an opening for China is incorrect on many counts. In either case, both parties have done a poor job until recently of protecting NZ’s sovereignty.

NZ’s strategy of balancing ensures some degree of independence, but such a small state is always going to have military and economic dependence on larger states. NZ traditionally retained a strong financial and military alliance with the UK and Australia, to which the US was added during the 1940s. From the 1970s, NZ moved to cement growing ties with Pacific and Asian countries, shifting its economic focus to its region and away from Europe and North America. NZ thus has one foot within a western military alliance and another foot within an Asia Pacific economic alliance. This makes for an unsteady position.

Would NZ ever leave the FVEY? There seems little reason for them to do so. If China continues to exert intelligent  control over many aspects of the country, FVEY acts as a useful counterweight, whatever the negative impact may be on  individual rights. 


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Take a sneek peak out the next blog in this series,
Jan Smuts and the Racial Origins of Five Eyes by John Mitcham (Duquesne University)
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