Tom: "In this globalised world, many public policy issues require a global response."
What’s unavoidable about New Zealand is that it’s both very small, and extremely far away.
Whenever I have the opportunity to travel, I’m reminded afresh of the sheer scale and complexity of the world – wherever I go, people are grappling with the growing convergence of legal, social, cultural, financial, economic, political, and increasingly technological systems.
This sense of scale is an inspiring feeling, which I try to hold onto for as long as possible. It’s made me think a lot about how the broader trends and themes we can see around the world might be localised and contextualised. How can New Zealand take the best from that overseas experience, while preserving what makes us unique?
In October, I made an extraordinary trip. The first leg was to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, as a member of the New Zealand delegation to the ASEAN Australia New Zealand (AANZ) Roundtable Dialogue, co-organised by the Asia New Zealand Foundation.
The dialogue was a track II diplomatic event aimed at free and frank discussion on issues affecting participating countries, with a subsequent day-trip to Thailand to meet with academics, journalists, and other non-governmental organisations.
I extended my trip to promote the work of the Action Coalition on Meaningful Transparency at the United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF) for 2023, hosted in Kyoto, Japan. In this piece, I share some reflections and provocations I took from the Roundtable, and I’ll follow up with reflections on IGF.
Globalised culture resists simplistic analysis
When I got to Thailand and Malaysia, one thing that stuck out to me was how familiar it felt – both because of Auckland’s superdiversity, and because I’d already seen parts of these countries and cultures on screen.
I came away dwelling on the clear distinctions between (for example) Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Indian cultures, as reflected in their socio-economic and political systems, as well as the growing soft power of these cultures globally. But I was also struck by familiar features that resonate through centuries of shared geopolitical history, including our own as a Crown colony.
The way these features intersect resists any kind of simplistic categorisation. The real world is always more rich than our datasets or classification systems can reflect, or any media portrayal can capture. Every country, city, community, and family is an unfathomably dense network of overlapping cultures, all changing over time in response to ever-proliferating global and local influences. In the face of this complexity, any measure of shared commitment to governing legal, political and technological systems is rare and precious.
Responding to transnational issues must account for local context
In this globalised world, many public policy issues require a global response: think international trade, platform regulation, artificial intelligence, disinformation operations, and climate change.
Historically, globalised frameworks are based on principles that reflected dominant national cultures at the time, which may have been imposed through coercion – by colonisation, conquest, or commerce.
A strong theme I drew from discussions was that many countries are increasingly comfortable rejecting the suggestion they must comprehensively adopt these existing global governance frameworks.
Instead, people are discussing the selective or augmented adoption of such mechanisms, with substantial revisions for local context and values.
In my view, New Zealand is also experiencing similar discussions about our own governance systems, specifically on topics like freedom of expression, a potentially pluralistic legal system, and co-governance of policy programmes and natural resources.
Absolutist approaches to individual rights have never been realistic – they are always tempered by community values, conflicting rights, and careful limitations. To make persuasive arguments in favour of human rights-based approach going forward will require drawing on our own experiences, using principled advocacy and humility, and engaging in substantive political debates where necessary.
Global connectivity brings risk and opportunity
The positive side of global connectivity is our capacity to engage in global digital economies.
We are heavily reliant on trade. When my Malaysian taxi driver asked me what New Zealand exports, I replied “logs, meat, and dairy”.
We compared the price of gasoline in Malaysia and New Zealand (Malaysia is a significant oil exporter) and he was stunned.
I think we must look beyond primary products and prioritise the creation and export of digital products and services. ASEAN nations are negotiating a digital economy framework agreement, and New Zealand’s Digital Economy Partnership Agreement with Singapore and Chile is an avenue we should be looking to pursue further.
So what should our role be in all of this?
In a globalised world – facing multipolarity, increasing complexity, tighter global linkages, and diverging expectations over international and regional governance – we heard explicit calls from ASEAN partners for New Zealand to step up and play a role as a middle power, with an independent foreign policy that fairly and intelligently navigates intensifying great power tensions.
This may require increasing comfort with bilateral or “mini-lateral” agreements that turn on shared interests and substantive exchanges outside multilateral systems. New Zealand is already adept at doing this.
Another unavoidable message was that New Zealand must remain engaged not just regionally, but globally too. No crisis, opportunity, or system is ever truly local or regional any more. Ripple effects spread across the world as a result of every decision – from the Pacific Island Forum, to AUKUS, to the Quad, to the Middle East, to Eastern Europe, to the South China Sea.
In my view, our foreign service and associated governmental and non-governmental institutions must be supported to navigate and embrace this environment, and I’ll be looking to see how the Brainbox Institute can play a role in these efforts.
The Brainbox Institute is a New Zealand based consultancy and think tank established in 2018, focusing on issues at the intersection law, public policy and technology.
These experiences and reflections were enabled by the work of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, whose small and incredible team are staging a masterclass in maintaining these links with Asia and, through Asia, the rest of the world.
About the author
Tom Barraclough is director of the Brainbox Institute, a tech-focused, New Zealand-based consultancy and thinktank with global reach. Tom has worked as an independent legal researcher and advocate since 2014, beginning his career working in human rights and medico-legal systems, and producing peer reviewed publications and nationally significant research on access to justice and accessibility for disabled people.
The Foundation's Track II programme supports informal diplomacy with thinktanks in Asia on issues and challenges facing the region.