Simon Bridges reviews New Zealand’s Foreign Service: A history for Newsroom


Simon Bridges recently reviewed Ian McGibbon’s ‘compendious, 564-page, multi-authored volumeNew Zealand’s Foreign Service: A history on Newsroom:

The young diplomats who I’ve met over the years in Beijing, Geneva and New Dehli have been blessed with bright-eyed, attractive personalities. You’d be entirely grateful if one of them rocked up on your doorstep partnered to your child. And as the compendious, 564-page, multi-authored volume New Zealand’s Foreign Service: A History reveals, their excellence has been a constant feature since MFAT was founded. A paper on the complexities around the Vietnam War by the Kiwis reputedly somehow made it into President Lyndon Johnson’s hands. He wanted to know why he wasn’t getting briefings of that high quality from his own officials.

It's true that for far too long MFAT was almost exclusively pale, stale and male (stenographers, ciphers and admin staff excluded). Just as in our wider working world, this has changed, with more and more women, Maori, and even more recently Pasifika and Asian Kiwis joining the ranks. Good. But the ministry was founded on the best of intentions, and has generally succeeded in recruiting “the best type of New Zealander”, which it aspired to employ. Its founding father, Alister McIntosh, sought to go for donnish professorial types, in order to attain a university staff common room feel. More generally, think Rhodes Scholar folk, of which MFAT has employed more than its fair share over the years.

In terms of actual global affairs, the book gives workman-like summaries on big issues and controversies over time and is dominated in this regard earlier on by decolonisation and throughout by the Cold War. (The  introduction, stating the book is the work of several writers overseen by a government committee, makes it sound like a Soviet Five-Year Plan.) We also see our country’s focus shift broadly from the UK to the US and then into the Asia Pacific.

On external rather than matters internal to the ministry, the book isn’t as pugnaciously polemical as I’d have enjoyed. But it’s nevertheless a significant book of record on a significant ministry. For a small, isolated nation dependent on exports, the story of our foreign service is an important one.

Read the full review here.