Ten Questions with Ian McGibbon


Q1: Why did it take so long for New Zealand to set up a diplomatic service?

For a long time New Zealand was content to follow the United Kingdom’s lead in international affairs. It was not until the 1930s that significant public divergences in stance with the UK occurred, when New Zealand spoke out in the League of Nations against appeasement of fascist aggression. While these divergences disappeared once the Second World War broke out, developments in the war demanded more attention to international issues. New Zealand began appointing representatives overseas (in addition to the longstanding high commission in London) — in Washington, initially, then Ottawa. It was the decision to appoint a high commissioner in Canberra in early 1943 that finally precipitated the establishment of the Department of External Affairs.

Q2: How would you define diplomacy?

Diplomacy is an essential tool in moderating the relationships between groups of people. In terms of the modern international system, it is practised most obviously between nation states — but increasingly it has also had to accommodate a range of non-state entities. Security is the prime goal, but economic security has almost as much importance for most states. Those charged by a state with carrying out such interaction and negotiation need to have particular qualities that will assist in this process, like intelligence, empathy, articulateness and language skills. For this reason, most states take particular care in their selection of diplomats, knowing that other states will have chosen their best and brightest for this role and that one’s own diplomats must be able to hold their own with them.

Q3: Are there any challenges to our external relationships that have not changed over the past 70 years?

The challenge of ensuring New Zealand’s security, physical and economic, has not changed over the last 70 years. The ongoing events in Ukraine have brutally demonstrated that we cannot rely on the rules-based world order alone for our security. Action must be taken to bolster this order and to ensure New Zealand’s security if the order irrevocably breaks down. This requires diplomatic interaction with likeminded states. The Ukraine War has also disrupted world trade, just as the Second World War did 80 years ago.

Q4: With everything that has been going on in the world recently, you would imagine MFAT would be a very busy place. But is there always something going on?

MFAT is always a busy place. Recent events have naturally led to an increase in diplomatic activity. But there are a range of ongoing situations and functions that require constant attention, especially those carried out under the auspices of the United Nations. Thus, for example, New Zealand is involved in various initiatives to ensure arms control and disarmament that continue to function almost as a matter of routine. Similarly, there is continuing attention to climate change matters. Normal interaction with 60 countries generates a lot of work. Of course, when a crisis occurs it’s a matter of redirecting resources within a whole of government response.

Q5: Were there gaps in the primary sources or did you have a wealth of material?

The main problem with primary sources for this history was their sheer scale. In a two-year project it was not possible to make more than selective forays into them. However, especially for the records now in Archives New Zealand, it was possible to review specific still-restricted files after they were vetted. No files were withheld from us. Nor was there any censorship regarding subjects.

Production of the first part of the history (up to 1966) and to some extent the second part (up to 1989) was facilitated by the private papers of some key individuals, most notably the first three secretaries, Alister McIntosh, George Laking and Frank Corner. They were supplemented by a number of oral history interviews held by both the Alexander Turnbull Library and MFAT. Interviews also played a key role in the production of the third part of the history, covering the last 30 years. Many of the most important individuals are still extant, and their input was very valuable.

Q6: This history comes right up to the present. Does this present any difficulties?

Writing history of very recent events is always problematical. It is difficult to be objective about situations that may still be evolving or be the subject of ongoing controversy. No constraints were placed on authors in writing the chapters covering the most recent period. The chapters were read by a variety of people, both practitioners and academics. This was important because the events of 2012–13 with the introduction of the Ministry Business Model, which radically changed the way the diplomatic service operated, were probably the most contentious in the ministry’s history, and their effects are still having an impact on the diplomatic service.

Q7: Diplomats have quite a glamorous reputation. How much is this the reality of life in the diplomatic service?

Especially in the early days, the public perception of diplomats was generally negative. There was a feeling that they swanned around overseas at the taxpayer’s expense, attending endless cocktail parties. The reality was very different. For most, the rewards of diplomatic service were balanced by a range of stresses — accommodation issues, difficult travel, separation from family and friends, lack of home leave and miserly responses to expenses. And the need to move every three or so years, often to unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable places. Some of these problems persist, but today’s diplomats enjoy better conditions. But no New Zealand diplomatic mission ever has as many people as it thinks it needs, and diplomats are kept very busy. The negative public focus on cocktail parties was — and is still — misplaced. Such gatherings are an important part of a diplomat’s role, providing the opportunity to secure the contacts that are so vital to a diplomat’s ability to do his or her job in a foreign capital. For many diplomats they are a necessary chore.

Q8: Did you get a sense of what our biggest diplomatic challenges are today?

The biggest challenge facing diplomats today is to confront the problems arising from the growth of transnational threats. The existential one is climate change. While it is for governments to make policy in this arena, it is diplomats who need to facilitate the whole-of-world response that is needed. There are other transnational challenges as well, especially in the resources field. Dealing with the growing number of transnational problems arising from the information revolution will also exercise diplomats in the years ahead. The other, more traditional challenge today is to buttress the rules-based world order that underpinned international relations for most of the ministry’s existence, now under direct threat in eastern Europe (just as the pre-Second World War order was in 1939). The need for diplomats has never been greater.

Q9: What has been the most major shake-up of the diplomatic service since its inception?

There have been two major shake-ups. The first was in 1988 with the transformation of the public service in New Zealand under the State Sector Act, 1988. The ministry was removed from the shackles that subordination to the State Service Commission had entailed and was now the master of its own ship. At the same time, it took responsibility for New Zealand’s trade policy formulation.

The second upheaval occurred in 2012 with the implementation of the Ministry Business Model. The existing rotational arrangement was replaced by a system in which diplomats competed for positions both overseas and in the senior ranks of the ministry in Wellington. The measure led to many resignations, which removed a lot of experienced staff. The impact of these reforms is still being felt, even if they have to a degree been modified in the following decade.

Q10: What are you reading or watching at the moment?

Because I edit a magazine which has a deadline every two months, I have limited time for general reading. I tend to favour non-fiction, especially books written by professional historians about European or North American history, such as my most recent read: Götz Aly’s Europe Against the Jews. I don’t read much fiction but did recently — Vasily Grossman’s monumental Second World War novels Stalingrad and Life and Fate. On television, apart from documentaries on the History channel, I prefer crime dramas or thrillers but at the moment I’m enjoying re-watching the comedy series Cheers.