Small states show the world how to survive multipolarity

Author: Jason Young, New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre

Small states such as New Zealand lack the decisive military power or economic leverage needed to pursue their interests unilaterally. They must live with asymmetrical power relations. An obvious example is New Zealand’s relationship with China.

China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner and has been an important source of migrants, international students, tourists and investment. New Zealand represents less than one per cent of China’s total imports and exports. How is it possible for such a small state to exert influence with large and powerful states?

Successive New Zealand governments have tried to leverage international law and organisations like the World Trade Organization (WTO). Such bodies provide small countries with the tools to defend their interests through agreed norms of diplomacy and treaty-making, and to ink economic agreements that are framed, supported and defended by the WTO.

The 2008 New Zealand–China Free Trade Agreement is one example of how international organisations underpin New Zealand’s relationship with China.

Without recourse to these international rules and norms, smaller countries would struggle to create a level playing field for their people and businesses and be forced to sacrifice self-determination for survival.

There is still a chance to avoid this.

A major contribution of the Western-dominated post-war era was the development of international organisations built upon the principles that nations and individuals are equal and that fair and impartial rules should govern their interactions.

The United Nations General Assembly, the WTO, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the International Criminal Court of Justice represent significant milestones in the development of multilateralism and global governance — even if imperfect and hampered by great-power rivalry and interests.

New Zealand has prospered under an international system where liberal countries have dominated in a fortuitous combination of multilateralism and like-minded …continue reading