‘Foreign policy’ refers to the strategies by which a government pursues its national interests through dealings with other countries and international organisations. Important objectives for foreign policy are:
- ensuring New Zealand’s security against external threats
- improving commercial opportunities for New Zealand businesses
- helping to formulate international rules and standards through political and economic agreements.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has the further responsibility of assisting New Zealand citizens in trouble in foreign countries.
Foreign policy is closely related to, and often overlaps with, defence policy and overseas trade and economic policy.
Who makes foreign policy?
Governments set the broad goals of foreign policy. These are often outlined in political party election manifestos. In New Zealand the cabinet sometimes considers foreign-policy issues, but usually endorses decisions made by a cabinet committee on external relations, trade and defence. The minister of foreign affairs normally chairs this committee. The prime minister often plays an important foreign-policy role, both in decision-making and in representing New Zealand overseas.
New Zealand diplomats taking up a post overseas are given detailed guidance on appropriate clothing and other matters to consider in their new country. Staff leaving for the first NZ legation in Moscow in 1944 were advised, ‘We are having long lambskin coats made with outer surface of gabardine ... these are 'de rigueur' for official classes, sheepskin coats being associated more with peasantry ... Fur caps and furlined gloves are recommended. Top hats are not being taken.’1
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade
MFAT is the principal government agency responsible for providing advice to the government on foreign policy. MFAT also implements policy through its network of diplomatic posts in other countries, which gather and analyse information used to update or adapt specific policies. MFAT officials, sometimes working with officials from other departments, prepare the policy papers on which the minister or cabinet take decisions. MFAT officials normally lead the New Zealand team in negotiations with other governments or in international organisations.
Role of Parliament
Parliament has limited involvement in making foreign policy but has important responsibilities in ratifying treaties. Parliament exercises some oversight of foreign policy through its select committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade, especially by examining MFAT’s budget estimates and other documents, such as the statement of intent and annual report which the ministry is required to produce every year.
The statement of intent presented to Parliament under the minister’s authority outlines policy priorities, looking ahead five years. Within MFAT, all divisions and posts prepare more specific policy-implementation proposals for the year ahead. These operational plans are reviewed during the year and adapted if necessary. The annual report summarises progress towards priority objectives during the previous 12 months, and contains information on MFAT expenditure.