(MENAFN – The Conversation) News that “bad boys in Brexit” had been hired by New Zealand First to work on the party’s social media strategy was simultaneously funny and unpleasant.
Famous for the Leave.EU campaign in England, the duo Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore are right-wing populists who are not shy. Their recruitment is another sign that New Zealand is not immune to the forces that now shape politics throughout the world.
Their recruitment underlines the biggest foreign policy challenge facing the country: the destruction of the order based on international rules.
Such an order is the foundation on which New Zealand’s diplomacy and economic prosperity are based. The COVID-19 crisis has confirmed that it is in big trouble but, paradoxically, it has also created a loophole to restore it.
End of time?
Since the end of the second world war, New Zealand has strongly supported the rules-based international relations system embodied in institutions such as the United Nations and the principle of multilateralism.
The global pandemic, however, has highlighted the absence of an effective international crisis management system.
The UN Security Council has been largely marginalized and the World Health Organization (WHO) has significantly weakened with the withdrawal of American Donald Trump.
To be sure, the rule-based international order was attacked before COVID-19 – challenged by the Russian authoritarian style of Vladimir Putin and China Xi Jinping, and the rise of national populists like Boris Johnson in America. Britain and Trump in the US.
In 2016, the Putin regime strongly supported the Leave campaign in the UK EU referendum and Trump’s successful efforts for the White House.
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As some observers have concluded, COVID-19 strengthened this development, reviving nationalism at the expense of globalization and internationalism.
According to this view, the post-COVID world will be marked by de-globalization, protectionism and the renewal of the competition of great powers between the US, China and Russia – at the expense of a middle or smaller power like New Zealand.
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However, there are three reasons to be skeptical about this. Globalization is a structural change, supported by revolutionary developments in communication technology since the early 1980s. This connection shows no signs of being reversed.
Indeed, COVID-19 has accelerated connectivity and digital revolution in many countries.
Related to this, the claim that two or three great powers will rule the world in the 21st century is selfish and totally unrealistic.
At present, all countries are faced with security, economic, environmental and health challenges that do not respect territorial borders and cannot be resolved unilaterally by a large force.
COVID-19 only highlights this. Instead of uniting the world against the virus, the US and China are reduced to fighting with each other over problems that cannot be controlled by both.
Finally, the diverse responses by countries to the pandemic clearly show the contours of the international transition we are undergoing.
Some of the highest mortality rates are found in countries with populist governments such as the US, UK and Brazil.
These governments initially seemed indifferent to WHO warnings, denied the advice of public health experts, and emphasized national uniqueness in a chaotic and slow response to the threat of the virus.
Conversely, countries that have performed well in maintaining relatively low mortality – including South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Singapore and New Zealand – acted earlier on WHO’s advice, heeded scientific expertise and health care, and were prepared to learn from each other.
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So while the rule-based order is the basis of New Zealand and most countries are dependent, the threat cannot be exaggerated.
An alternative world “where the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” can only be accepted by some countries that consider themselves great powers.
Towards a better world order
Then, what can be done to strengthen the multilateral system so that the world can deal more effectively with people like global pandemics or climate change?
It is clear that our traditional allies, the US and Britain – currently led by populist governments – can no longer be relied upon to provide leadership in multilateral arrangements.
So New Zealand must be prepared to work with other like-minded countries to build a new global political group dedicated to advancing order based on rules.
New Zealand can even help lead such movements, given its global reputation for firm and compassionate leadership after the terrorist atrocities of Christchurch and during the pandemic.
By rejecting the politics of populism and isolationism, New Zealand can embrace a new form of bottom-up multilateralism that does not depend on the great powers that set the agenda.
Lots to do. Restricting or eliminating the veto rights of the five members of the UN Security Council and reforming the global economic system are some of the reforms that are urgently needed to reduce global insecurity and inequality.
Foreign policy has rarely been an election issue in the past, but COVID-19 made this contest different. Voters need the option to decide how New Zealand can protect its core values and interests in a world where this is directly threatened.