2 Dec 2023

Richard Jackson: Does NZ really need its defence force?

From Saturday Morning, 10:50 am on 2 December 2023
New Zealand Army soldiers inside an Australian Army vehicle during the mission rehearsal exercise for Task Group Taji 3 at RAAF Edinburgh, with about 300 Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen prepared for deployment to Iraq in exercise at RAAF Edinburgh in Adelaide, South Australia.

Photo: NZDF / Supplied

As wars continue in Gaza, Ukraine, and other parts of the world, a new book questions whether New Zealand ought to have a military force at all.

Professor Richard Jackson, Griffin Leonard and Joseph Llwellyn of The National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, at the University of Otago, are co-authors of Abolishing the Military - Arguments and Alternatives.

So how could New Zealand ensure its security and promote international peace in alternative, non-violent ways?

Maintaining a national military is almost taken for granted, but there are other options, and there are good reasons for questioning the status quo, Jackson tells Saturday Morning.

"There's almost no countries in the world that don't have militaries, and our politics, our culture, our history books, everything, just kind of naturally assumes that militaries are part of modern life and modern society, the modern state, and also that they're necessary, that they're effective and that they can be used in ethical ways," he says.

"It's almost a common sense.

"We're trying to raise some questions about that and ask for a more in depth public debate about is that really true and what are the actual real costs, for example of maintaining a military."

The popular image New Zealand's military has within Aotearoa is not a full reflection of what it is and does, Jackson says.

"People might think that the NZDF [New Zealand Defence Force] has all these sort of pro-social roles; humanitarian support when there's a disaster, and peacekeeping round the world and so on.

"But when you actually look closely at the training that they do and the equipment that they get and their strategic doctrine that they adopt ... it's very clear that their primary goal and their primary role is to train hard to be able to fight in a war.

"Whether that war is to defend New Zealand from an invasion or to fight alongside our Anglosphere allies overseas, or to fight in a UN peace support operation - fighting, actual combat, it is its primary training. We think that is an important thing to consider, because I don't think most New Zealanders think of the NZDF in that way."


Professor Richard Jackson Photo: supplied

A common argument for the importance of the military is that New Zealand has a duty to play its part as good international citizens, to participate in UN operations to bring peace and security and democracy to other countries, or to support its allies.

But, the authors say, UN peacekeeping missions do not have a good record of success.

Photo: supplied

"Most of the missions we've taken part in have not been successful. And perhaps the most successful operation we were in, in Bougainville, our troops weren't even armed, they went in as unarmed peacekeepers," Jackson says.

"Certainly our involvement with the UK and the US and other Anglosphere powers - particularly during the last 20 years of the war on terror has contributed nothing to peace and security, in fact it's done the opposite, it's helped to create - I think - a much more dangerous and insecure world."

Another common argument is that the myth of the ANZACs has entwined New Zealand's military identity into the national conscience as a cornerstone of national identity.

But, Jackson points to other aspects of New Zealand's history as offering alternatives; Parihaka, conscientious objectors, the anti-nuclear movement.

"We have an equally strong peace tradition, which could also be our national identity, and it's not necessary for us to maintain a military just to keep a kind of sense of national identity," he says.

"The way in which we've employed the military and equipped it for its inter-operability [with it's allies resources] means that that kind of undermines or at least holds in tension, our state of desire to have an independent and principled foreign policy.

"It's hard to do that when you're constantly fighting wars on behalf of, or with, the United States and Britain, who are well known imperial powers."

Another common argument for today's military, Jackson says, is the suggestion that not having a military would mean no action could be taken in response to perceived international injustices or threats, that New Zealand would then be forced to remain passive and lose the opportunity to take action. But he rejects that idea.

"Anyone who studies international politics or international conflicts knows that doing the military thing is not the only option, there are so many other ways of intervening in a conflict and helping in a conflict; providing diplomatic services to try and create a solution, by negotiated settlements, providing humanitarian aid, taking refugees.

"There are literally hundreds of other things that you can do apart from using the military."

"What we've argued, and what we've shown based on the research that's been done for many years, is that there are a lot of costs and negative externalities that occur when you use the military, and by using the military you actually create the conditions for further conflict down the line."

The alternative options that could be utilised vary for each country and situation, Jackson says, but examples include unarmed civilian peacekeepers being sent to assist the UN with peacekeeping missions, or social defence, which Lithuania adopted after independence from the Soviet Union, as a national defence system in case of invasion.

"Each country has to find a model for itself."