In the early days of the New Zealand colony it was accepted readily enough that the British Government should continue to be responsible for external trade and foreign relations. In 1869 and 1870 colonial irritation with British policy over Maori affairs and the conduct of the Maori Wars led to mutters of independence, separation, and even of neutrality in a war caused by British policy. Imperial concessions in 1870, however, were a sign of increasing British sympathy for its colonial connections, and marked the beginning of a period during which New Zealand loyalty to the “motherland” was unquestioned. And yet in the immediate era of expansion there were New Zealand leaders who saw their country's interests in a broader context. The Imperial tie restricted New Zealand's freedom in trade policy and she unsuccessfully pressed in 1871 and 1887 to be allowed to negotiate her own commercial agreements. In 1873 it was conceded that the colonies had the right to grant each other tariff preferences. In 1902 Richard Seddon took a lead in trying to persuade the United Kingdom itself to abandon its traditional free-trade system – and in this way foreshadowed the imperial preference arrangements reached at Ottawa in 1932 as a Commonwealth response to world depression. The Imperial Conferences of 1923 and 1926 recognised that New Zealand, along with the other Dominions, was entitled to conclude its own trade – and political treaties – with foreign countries. New Zealand's first commercial treaty – one with Japan – came in 1928, and another with Belgium in 1933 was followed by others.
In the expansive 1870s New Zealand leaders began to look with interest on the Pacific Islands to the north, and Vogel, Grey, Stout, and Seddon thought – and argued – in terms of annexation or of a Pacific federation. But it was accepted that this was a matter on which New Zealand must act through the British Government – and the only immediate fruits of New Zealand importunities was the annexation of the Cook Islands and Niue in 1901. New Zealand was denied Samoa in 1884, but another chance came when, on the outbreak of war in August 1914, New Zealand troops took possession of the German territory of Western Samoa. New Zealand acquired the League of Nations Mandate in 1919 by a series of steps which left some doubts as to the legal responsibility of the United Kingdom Government for the transaction; however, by the time the status of the territory had changed from mandate to United Nations trust territory (in 1946), New Zealand's international and municipal responsibility had been acknowledged. When in 1962 Western Samoa became an independent state in treaty relationship with New Zealand, New Zealand could claim that she had taken an initiative in the granting of autonomy to a small territory which was to have implications elsewhere in the Pacific and beyond.
Russian warships in the Pacific in 1885 and French and German activities in the Pacific Islands were reminders that independence could be perilous for a small country. Vogel's thoughts turned towards imperial federation. He and successors like Seddon and Ward saw an imperial forum, for instance an imperial council, as a method of providing the colonies with a voice in the making of British policy and at the same time of assuring them of the protection of the British Navy. Seddon and Ward pressed their views without avail at the Colonial Conferences of 1897 and 1907 and at the Imperial Conference of 1911. There was, nevertheless, a realism in their approach which was not always shared by their fellow Empire Prime Ministers. The New Zealanders saw that the colonies would inevitably become involved in the wars of the mother country and would be called upon to make their own financial contribution to the defence of the Empire. Having accepted this situation, New Zealand ministers were anxious to have some say in the making of policies which might lead the Empire into war. The other colonies saw the choice clearly enough, but were more ready to forego the “say” in the vain hope of being able to escape the responsibility.
In 1911 the Dominions, other than New Zealand, were willing to have the British Prime Minister declare, in answer to Sir Joseph Ward's proposals:
[They] would impair, if not altogether destroy, the authority of the United Kingdom in such grave matters as the conduct of foreign policy, the conclusion of treaties, the declaration and maintenance of peace, or the declaration of war, and, indeed, all those relations with Foreign Powers, necessarily of the most delicate character, which are now in the bands of the Imperial Government, subject to its responsibility to the Imperial Parliament. That authority cannot be shared….
The British Prime Minister did, however, go some way towards meeting the difficulties the New Zealand Prime Minister had raised. During the Conference Dominion representatives were given an opportunity at confidential meetings to discuss foreign policy and defence; and an undertaking was given that, where possible, the United Kingdom Government would consult with the Dominions before negotiating international agreements affecting those Dominions.
Developments during the First World War showed just how realistic the approach of the New Zealand statesmen had been. Although the Dominions were brought into the war by a decision in which they had no part, they gave prodigally of their manhood and resources. The problems of wartime consultation was eventually met by the establishment of the Imperial War Cabinet, the constitution of which would not have seemed unduly strange to Seddon and to Ward. The longer term problem was discussed at the Imperial War Conference in 1917. The Conference recognised the need for readjustment of the constitutional relations of the component parts of the Empire. The nature of that readjustment would be discussed after the war, but it would recognise the right of the Dominions to an adequate voice in foreign policy, and would provide effective arrangements for continuous consultation on all important matters of common imperial concern. It was taken for granted that in these matters there would continue to be a single imperial foreign policy, but that, in future, unity would not be imposed from above by one government at Westminster. It would result from the continuous consultation of autonomous nations.
Although the inter-war Imperial Conferences elaborated techniques of consultation and cooperation, events soon showed that it was not going to be possible to ensure unified action on the part of members of what now had come to be called the British Commonwealth of Nations. By the time of the Second World War it had become recognised that the members of the Commonwealth could pursue their own foreign policies, conclude their own political treaties, exchange diplomatic representatives with whom they chose, vote as they wished at meetings of the League of Nations, and, most significant of all, make their own decisions to declare war and make peace. Viscount Halifax was thinking in the past when, during a visit to Canada in 1944, he proposed that machinery should be established enabling common Empire policies on such matters as foreign and economic affairs and defence. The Canadian Prime Minister immediately rejected the suggestion that there could be a single Commonwealth policy as distinct from each nation having its own policy.
The Canadian approach, consistent as it was with Canadian views between the wars, would not have been congenial to a New Zealand Government before 1935. In the post-1918 period New Zealand loyalty to Britain had expressed itself in uncritical adherence to British policies. The Labour Government which came to power in 1935 began, however, to think in terms of a New Zealand policy. This was seen, in particular, in the League of Nations, where her spokesman, W. J. Jordan, later Sir William Jordan, took firm stands when the Spanish Civil War and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia were before the League. New Zealand's uncompromising support of the League Covenant led to public differences with British spokesmen, and Peter Fraser, then Deputy Prime Minister, said in 1938 in reply to criticism:
It was time somebody spoke – the country has to make up its own mind on international problems as a sovereign country … though we work in closest co-operation with the British Government, that does not mean to say that we must be prepared to swallow everything the British Government cares to put forward.
Nevertheless, New Zealand, in the following year, readily accepted the United Kingdom declaration of war against Germany as involving New Zealand in war and proclaimed her solidarity with Britain. This was, perhaps, the last time that New Zealand was to regard herself as legally bound by a decision of United Kingdom ministers. During the war itself Fraser had numerous opportunities to take a definitive New Zealand position and this attitude was reflected in New Zealand policies during the establishment of the United Nations and the negotiation of the peace treaties. By then it was recognised on all sides that the Dominions were entitled to pursue independent policies, and were in no sense – legal or political – subordinate to the United Kingdom. Thus the Conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers, which has replaced the Imperial Conference, adopts no formal resolutions or binding decisions.
More recently New Zealand has on numerous occasions taken an independent position – the luxury of a small country with no great commitments. In the United Nations, in particular, her spokesmen have opposed the views of the United Kingdom and of other Commonwealth countries. In 1951 consciousness of this dependence on the United States for security in the Pacific led Australia and New Zealand to conclude the ANZUS Agreement with the United States, but not with the United Kingdom. In 1954 New Zealand and Australia became separate parties along with the United Kingdom to the SEATO Treaty establishing the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation. Again New Zealand, along with Australia, has allowed herself to be influenced by United States policies in continuing to recognise the Nationalist Government of China, although the United Kingdom had recognised the Communist regime. On the other hand, the strength of loyalties flowing from the Commonwealth tie led New Zealand to join Australia in rather uncritical support of United Kingdom action in Suez.