New Zealand Defence Forces rehearsing a cavalry assault in Argo Valley
In early March, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced that his country would be sending 143 military personnel to help train the Iraqi Armed Forces. Key, the leader of New Zealand’s National Party, was re-elected in September in what was almost the first election in which a single party had a parliamentary majority since the 1990s (they fell one seat short). The government appeared to be quite eager to capitalize on this success. The government also stated that the deployed troops will not be involved in combat operations.
The announcement was met with mixed feelings across the political spectrum, understandable given the country’s mixed history with regards to military deployments to the Middle East. New Zealand was part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and 8 members of the New Zealand Army are still there helping to train the Afghan National Army. However, New Zealand vociferously opposed the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and only joined the coalition in that country reluctantly.
This begets the question: why did New Zealand feel the need to deploy to Iraq in the first place? A government cable, released by Wikileaks, confirmed what many had suspected from the start: that the government in Wellington felt that New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra’s contract with the UN’s Oil for Food Program would be in jeopardy if the country remained absent from the Coalition of the Willing for a prolonged period of time. US influence in the UN might not have been enough to cancel such a contract outright, but the White House could most certainly have exerted pressure on the UN to award the contract to another company. Washington was delighted at then PM Helen Clark’s decision to deploy troops, even if they were embedded in British units so she could save a little political face.
Talking about a single company is one thing; discussing the underlying assumption is another. New Zealand assumed that because it was a small, less strategically significant country with a strong but modest economy, it needed international leverage in dealing with the US. Many in Wellington thought that not being part of the invasion of Iraq could cost them international influence. Participating in the reconstruction of Iraq seemed a way to get back into America’s graces. In fact, earlier this year, New Zealand was revealed to be a listening post for all of Oceania, spying on the region for and sharing that information with the so-called Five Eyes Network of New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US.
New Zealand is not the only country that feels the need to continue to cooperate with the US on major foreign policy issues. Neighboring Australia has been heavily involved in supporting American counter-terrorism actions for at least the past decade. It didn’t matter what party, or what party leader, held the office of Prime Minister of Australia – support for the US remained constant, and that support was rewarded with security guarantees, trade deals, and other benefits. Thailand allowed the CIA to create and staff black cites on its territory; Japan sent escort ships to protect convoys and aided in intelligence gathering; Georgia offered to host US military personnel on its territory in case the Turks ever followed through on their threats to curtail American usage of bases in their country. All of these nations faced regional threats and problems that prompted them to seek assistance from the US. Consequently, all received visits from high level American officials, including the President, and other such shows of support; and all either backed US-led action in certain parts of the world or were respectfully silent on the matter.
As the most powerful country on Earth, the US can reward its friends for assistance rendered. There are certain countries the US knows it can rely on for diplomatic assistance in many areas around the globe, to help Washington advance arguments that make its (often narrow) position more palatable or seemingly more broad-based. These countries, some of which were mentioned above, know they can use such a position as a bargaining tool with the US to help them advance their own local diplomatic interests. By consistently assisting the US, they are often rewarded with things that could help them achieve such goals.
But, as the old political saying goes, “What have you done for me lately?” Nations that do not support the US, or do so infrequently, are not part of this club. They haven’t paid the entrance fee for the club, or they’ve fallen back on the payment of their dues, so they don’t get to sit at the table. Aside from the occasional case of a War-Games-esque scenario, if you can’t play the game, how can you win? Once in the club, nations need to continue to perform, to continue assisting in meaningful ways in the international arenas the US cares about the most, like counter-terrorism, trade, intellectual property, maritime law, etc. To be sure, a nation may receive significant benefits from inclusion in this exclusive and mutually reinforcing club (otherwise, there would be no incentive to join). But make no mistake: the onus of membership is on the country asking to join. In this case, bolstered by recent electoral triumph, New Zealand’s current government’s continued membership fee has manifested itself in a training deployment to Iraq. With the negotiation of the TPP on the horizon, perhaps this deployment constitutes a means to further their continued economic sustainability in the region by getting better deals in the treaty.
This is not to suggest that the US will always be able to hold this sway over New Zealand, other smaller countries, or other countries in general. If anything, history tells that the US will lose this currently unparalleled level of influence sooner than it expects. But for now, Washington is running the Club of the Willing; if a nation doesn’t pay, there are others just outside the door waiting to get in.
Michael Alter is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in Government and Economics and minoring in History.