New Zealand’s Foreign Service reviewed in North & South


Peter Bale has reviewed New Zealand’s Foreign Service: A history, edited by Ian McGibbon, in North & South:

Breakfast: Our Most Diplomatic Meal

It seems that New Zealand diplomats deployed a secret weapon to increase their influence when the country won the election to join the United Nations Security Council. That weapon? Breakfast.

The breakfast breakthrough is one of many anecdotes from a new official history of the foreign service, now known as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). For New Zealand’s Foreign Service, A History, historian Ian McGibbon and a team of experts interviewed living diplomats and ministers and researched every turn of Aotearoa’s diplomatic efforts since Wellington emerged from the cloak of colonial control in wartime and found its footing in the world.

The book plots the creation of a tiny diplomatic service out of the critical years of World War II, when New Zealand needed to reach beyond London and connect to the new centre of power in Washington. It deals also with the role our diplomats played in the founding and early direction of the United Nations after the war.

The story of what truly must have felt like power breakfasts comes towards the end of the chronology, dealing with the enormous diplomatic effort New Zealand put into winning the seat on the Security Council as a way of gaining a critical period of influence and impact.

New Zealand was elected to the Security Council in October 2014, when former deputy PM and Opposition leader Jim McClay was our permanent representative to the UN. New Zealand needed 129 of 193 votes to take a seat on the 15-member council. After a global campaign, NZ won 145 votes, ahead of Spain and Turkey. Then-foreign minister Murray McCully was determined Wellington made itself heard in Security Council deliberations.

Breakfast, it seems, became central to the plan to have outsized influence. New Zealand launched monthly off-site ambassadorial-level informal breakfasts, giving the Security Council diplomats a chance to talk freely and get to know each other away from UN HQ on the East River in New York. They often breakfasted across the road from the UN, in the official residence of the New Zealand head of mission.

The book quotes McLay’s successor to the UN, Gerard van Bohemen, saying the breakfasts “improved the understanding members had of each other’s points of view, and thus improved the way in which the council functioned”. He said Russia later retained the idea and so-called “New Zealand breakfasts” became standard practice. Van Bohemen told me he gave New Zealand wine, or honey for non-drinkers, as gifts to attendees.

I talked to another former diplomat who questioned what the breakfasts or seat — which New Zealand occupied for two years — had actually achieved. “What has New Zealand got to show for its session? A whole lot of breakfasts. What did it do for New Zealand? We have a poor capacity for hard-headed analysis of what international reputation means: people being nice to you in a room: what does it amount to?”

The book suggests it is all rather subtle, and that a small nation like New Zealand needs to take its wins when it can. Those wins include being elected to the Security Council, getting Helen Clark appointed as head of the UN Development Programme (although later failing to get her appointed as UN secretary-general), and other international appointments such as Mike Moore as World Trade Organisation director-general, or Don McKinnon as Commonwealth secretary-general.

There’s an assumption we punch above our weight. From the creation of the modern UN in San Francisco in 1945, where Prime Minister Peter Fraser and diplomat Sir Carl Berendsen played critical roles; to the Antarctic Treaty, the Law of the Sea Convention, whaling agreements, to combatting the use of chlorofluorocarbons that created the hole in the ozone layer. Wellington’s message — which was the basis of a communications strategy for the campaign for that last Security Council post was “New Zealand is fair, practical, and constructive”.

At home in Wellington, the foreign service over decades engineered itself to take responsibility for trade. It saw off various threats to its influence from the office of various prime ministers, having been created more or less as an offshoot of the PM’s office.

The story of the foreign service is really a story of New Zealand emerging from the skirts of Britain while still capitalising on its historic ties to London, especially after World War II. This is a legacy which is evident in membership of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network.

“We were in the British world, and we benefited from that up to the 1970s really,” says the book’s editor, Ian McGibbon. “The British were a global power until the mid-50s at least and I think we benefited from being part of their orbit.”

Wellington’s message — which was the basis of a communications strategy for the campaign for that last Security Council post — was “New Zealand is fair, practical, and constructive”.

Since then, the focus shifted from security to trade; to the prospect of British entry to the then-European Community; the expansion of New Zealand trade to Southeast Asia; and in the past 50 years, the rise of China. The book tracks that transition and the kinds of people the ministry recruited in an ever-more diverse cohort as New Zealand itself evolved.

Yet, throughout those years from a fawning dependency on London, to a World War II dependency on the US, and a post-war search for relevance, influence and the protection of free trade on which the isolated island nation depended, it seems the foreign service tried to protect what its founder Sir Alister McIntosh had described as “New Zealandishness” — whatever that may mean at any point in time. That seems particularly relevant when Wellington has Nanaia Mahuta as foreign minister, the second Maori to hold that post after Winston Peters.

I asked McGibbon who he thought had been the most effective foreign minister. “You can’t go past Peter Fraser in the first period. He was a very effective foreign minister. More recently, the longest serving one was Don McKinnon, and he made quite an impact with some of the stuff in the Pacific.

“Norman Kirk was the one that the ministry regarded as the great foreign minister. He was the first prime minister who really valued the ministry. He wanted to really project New Zealand into the world in a way that the foreign affairs people believed needed to be done. Of course, he died far too quickly. Muldoon took over and his attitude to the ministry was quite hostile. He saw them as elitists.”

Peters, says McGibbon, is remembered for getting “a large dollop of money” for the ministry, which his predecessors hadn’t managed. It’s too soon to talk about Mahuta’s legacy, though she’s clearly trying a subtle approach with China to balance the trade and diplomatic implications of an increasingly assertive Beijing, the foreign service’s latest challenge.