The Geopolitical Promise of New Zealand’s Conservative Swing

Audio Brief

A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Kathryn Paik on her Critical Questions, “The Geopolitical Promise of New Zealand’s Conservative Swing.”

Audio file

The New Zealand elections on October 14 brought to power the country’s most conservative government in decades, and New Zealand’s first-ever three-party coalition. How will this new government approach the increasingly complex geopolitical environment, and how, if at all, will this radical shift affect U.S.-New Zealand relations, which has seen increasing strategic alignment in recent years? This Critical Questions aims to address these questions and provide analysis on the likely trajectory of New Zealand foreign policy under the new government. 

Q1: What is the current state of bilateral relations between New Zealand and the United States, and how did it evolve under the leadership of the previous Labour government?  

A1: Although the United States and New Zealand are not treaty allies—the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty having been suspended when New Zealand instituted its antinuclear policy in the mid-1980s—the two countries have over a century of shared history. This includes close cooperation in World War II and the formation of the Five Eyes intelligence grouping (along with Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada).

Despite this long history of partnership, New Zealand and the United States have not always seen eye to eye on regional and global security issues. In addition to New Zealand’s long-standing nuclear-free policy, its relationship with China, a major trading partner, has sometimes caused friction with the United States when Wellington has, at times, been unwilling to criticize Beijing on issues of common concern. In recent years, however, a more contested global and regional environment and a more assertive China has led to an increasing convergence in U.S. and New Zealand strategic outlooks.

As a signal of New Zealand’s evolving views on regional dynamics, the country released its first-ever National Security Strategy (NSS) in 2023. Although this strategy was produced by the previous Labour government, it points to an ongoing shift regarding New Zealand’s role in global affairs and the need to actively work with partners to maintain the present rules-based international order. The strategy states that New Zealand’s national security depends upon the international rules-based order, and supporting that system is now “more important than ever”—a clear acknowledgement of emerging threats to the international system. The strategy emphasizes the need for a “robust network of partnerships” with New Zealand’s Australian ally and other likeminded partners including the United States, whose “sustained engagement . . . in the Indo-Pacific and Pacific is critical.” These partnerships are then contrasted with New Zealand’s relationship with China—a country the strategy directly calls out for taking actions countering core New Zealand national security interests, especially in the Pacific.

When comparing actions to words, the previous government demonstrated this sentiment in several ways, most notably with New Zealand’s strong support for increased U.S. and partner engagement in the Pacific. In addition to directly supporting the first two U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum summits in Washington, D.C., New Zealand was a founding member of the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP), a U.S.-proposed strategic-level initiative aimed at motivating and coordinating like-minded engagement in the Pacific.

Labour Prime Minister Ardern’s visit to Washington in 2022 further reinforced this convergence. During their bilateral meeting, Prime Minister Ardern and President Biden reaffirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and New Zealand and advanced bilateral work along several lines of effort, including strengthening partnership with the Pacific Islands, tangibly addressing the climate crisis, deepening economic ties, and collaborating on advanced technology. Both sides also jointly noted “with concern” the People’s Republic of China-Solomon Islands security agreement and attempts by a state that “does not share our values or security interests” to establish a military presence in the Pacific.

Despite the warmth of this growing relationship, some friction points remained, such as U.S. desire to see New Zealand dedicate more funding for defense and foreign policy. But closer partnership also facilitates honest discussion, and overall, the Labour government was marked by continued progress towards a more collaborative relationship. 

Q2: What happened in the recent New Zealand elections?

A2: Despite Prime Minister Ardern’s international popularity across both terms (2017–2020 and 2020–2023), her domestic numbers declined significantly in 2022, reflecting growing dissatisfaction over the economy and what was seen as a lack of follow through on Labour promises. In January 2023, Ardern announced that she would resign, leaving Chris Hipkins to take over as prime minister for the last 9 months before October elections. Given popular dissatisfaction with Labour, the October elections saw an unsurprising conservative swing, bringing National’s Christopher Luxon into the prime minister role. Interestingly, the final count resulted in a coalition of not two but three parties—a first for New Zealand. This result led to six weeks of wrangling, ending with a configuration by which the populist New Zealand First’s Winston Peters will be deputy prime minister for the first 18 months and the classical-liberal ACT party’s David Seymour will take the deputy prime minister reigns for the second 18 months.

While much of the news surrounding the election focused on the rise of Luxon, a former businessman and relatively new politician, the other name dominating the news cycle was Peters, a populist and longtime political heavyweight. Peters’s New Zealand First party has often held the balance of power postelections, with Peters twice before holding the titles of deputy prime minister and foreign minister. A colorful politician that often spars with the press, Peters has been vocal in his opposition to Labour’s incorporation of Māori language into government departments, and his nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric may for some carry echoes of Donald Trump. At the same time, Peters was intent on reducing long-standing tensions between New Zealand and the United States during his time as Ardern’s foreign minister in her first term, and his public comments in recent months confirm that he continues to view close alignment with partners like the United States as critical for New Zealand’s national security.

Q3: What can be expected from the new government on the international stage? 

A3: While positions on domestic issues such as taxes and immigration may differ significantly with the Labour Party, the messaging from the new government does not forecast a radical shift in New Zealand’s global outlook. If anything, there are indications that this government is willing to be much more vocal and clearer about its alignment with like-minded partners to secure New Zealand’s national security interests. In other words, expect much of what we read in last year’s NSS to remain relevant.

In a deliberate signal on the importance of New Zealand’s relationship with its only ally Australia, Prime Minister Luxon made his first overseas trip as prime minister to Canberra in late December. There, the two countries committed to deepening their defense and security cooperation in what Luxon noted is a “more challenging and complex world.” This sentiment has been echoed by Peters, who stated in December that he aims to move New Zealand closer to traditional intelligence partners as well as other key international players, such as India.

Nowhere is confirmation of the new government’s posture on security clearer than in the conversation around AUKUS, a trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. While the Labour government had indicated cautious interest in the initiative, Luxon was more forward-leaning during his trip to Australia by publicly stating New Zealand’s interest in exploring Pillar Two. Additionally, Luxon’s assertion that AUKUS “would help ensure peace and stability” in the Pacific region is significant as it demonstrates support for what has thus far been a contentious initiative in the region. 

Despite what Luxon and Peters have been saying, however, it is still unclear what New Zealand’s foreign policy “voice” will be moving forward—or even if the trifecta of coalition parties have fully fleshed out their united foreign policy posture. The government will need to balance the growing attention to national security with the National Party’s traditional focus on business and trading relations. Last time National was in power, it prioritized fostering good economic relations with China, and as recently as July 2023, Luxon himself stated that he would “absolutely” consider direct investment from China via the Belt and Road Initiative. How much the other members of his coalition may or may not keep these considerations in check is yet to be seen.

The other potential area of complexity for this new government is the Pacific. As foreign minister for Ardern, Peters was the architect of New Zealand’s “Pacific Reset,” and he has already traveled to Fiji, the headquarters of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), in his new role. While Peters’s trip to Fiji was itself a strong signal, Peters did not give any firm commitments on areas of concern to the Pacific, such as progress toward a visa-free Pacific or how the new government would approach development assistance in the region.

Additionally, the new government’s position on Māori issues could distance New Zealand from its Pacific neighbors, who see respect for and preservation of Pacific culture as central to Pacific relations. To prove that the new government is truly focused on the region, it will need to show meaningful partnership on Pacific priorities such as combating climate change and fostering economic development. All eyes will be on the new government’s first budget statement—typically out in May—to see if the priorities laid out reflect this strong rhetoric.

Q4: What is the upshot for the United States and what questions remain? 

A4: U.S. policymakers can be somewhat reassured that this new government sees itself as strategically aligned with the United States—perhaps even moving significantly further than Labour on key issues such AUKUS. The suggestion by the government that it will be “renewing focus” on Five Eyes and other like-minded partners implies that it did not consider the position of the previous Labour government as going far enough.

This alignment is particularly important in the Pacific, where the United States is keenly aware of China’s attempts to gain influence and reshape the security architecture of the region. New Zealand has been a key partner in U.S. reengagement in the Pacific, both in helping the United States navigate complex Pacific dynamics, and in its direct support for U.S. initiatives to broaden like-minded development efforts in the region. Having a government that not only continues to place importance on U.S. involvement in the Pacific but, more broadly, is aligned on the strategic need for like-minded cooperation to sustain the international rules-based system, is a boon to U.S. policymakers. 

Several questions remain, however, not least of which is will this new coalition government devote budgetary resources to what it states are regional priorities, such as strengthening its security relationship with Australia and bolstering its work in the Pacific. It also remains to be seen what, exactly, New Zealand is willing to say and do to counter Chinese ambitions in areas like Taiwan and the South China Sea, especially as it continues to balance its trade interests with China. As with Australia, there are likely to be areas where the United States desires stronger and more vocal pushback from New Zealand. That said, the NSS’s emphasis on working with partners to maintain the current global system provides ample opportunities to collaborate on activities that bolster Indo-Pacific security in less contentious ways, such as building up the maritime domain awareness capacity of Pacific and Southeast Asian partners. 

The extent to which New Zealand will become engaged in AUKUS is also undecided. While both the current and previous governments have expressed a strong desire to partner with the United States on high-end technology, the antinuclear stance of New Zealand—which Luxon has reinforced—could make any form of AUKUS involvement tenuous, or at least require a concerted effort to meet public approval. But incorporating partners like New Zealand into AUKUS Pillar Two could have immense benefits, not least of which would be broadening regional understanding of AUKUS as a mechanism that provides, vice threatens, regional stability. AUKUS partners should embrace this conversation with their New Zealand counterparts and explore where this collaboration could be realized.

The upshot is cautiously positive for the United States. The consistency in New Zealand’s national security outlook across governments on opposite ends of the political spectrum demonstrates just how entrenched these ideas have become in the New Zealand system. That said, much work remains to be done to maintain the upward trajectory of this important bilateral relationship.

Kathryn Paik is a senior fellow with the Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.