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In an age of increased international interdependence, NZ shrinks diplomatically.

datePosted on 17:30, February 23rd, 2012 by Pablo

The lunatics have taken over the asylum. Not only has National adopted an incoherent foreign policy in which it attempts to straddle the fence between China and the US by tying its trade fortunes to the former and its security fortunes to the latter (something that it thinks is hedging but which is untenable given the looming strategic conflict between the two great powers). It has now decided that it can dispense with 305 MFAT employees, including diplomatic staff assigned abroad (as it closes embassies and consulates). This, at a time when global interdependence is increasing and the range of international relations is getting more rather than less complex.

Diplomacy and its support infrastructure are good value for money because the service it provides helps NZ’s position in the world. For the cost of diplomatic and home office salaries, travel, conferencing, housing (abroad) and foreign aid programs, NZ can avoid military entanglements (the costs of which are exponentially higher than diplomatic chit chat), engage in negotiations on matters of national interest (for example, non-proliferation, arms control and climate change), and generally steer a safe course in the turbulent seas of the post 9-11 world. To do so requires personnel with varied skill sets, so reducing the complement of personnel dedicated to diplomatic functions reduces NZ’s capacity to engage its foreign interlocutors on a broad range of issues. Numbers do matter here.

The market zealots of the National razor gang want to cut all perceived public sector fat regardless of consequence. This is like choosing a skinny marathoner to run an Antarctic ice race instead of a distance runner with a sturdier (read thicker) constitution: the short term look may seem impressive, but once the choice is placed into real context it is bound to suffer, likely fail and in the end be more costly to maintain. We have already seen the domestic consequences of such logics. Now we will see them in our international affairs.

Add to this the privatization of NZAID programs in which fostering business opportunities is given priority over human developmental assistance, and what you have is foreign policy debacles in the making.

Of course, the National government may be doing this because it already knows that it is going to lose the next election and does not care if it saddles Labour (or more likely a successor Labour/Green government) with the costs of the diplomatic re-build after McCully and co. have reduced NZ’s diplomatic footprint to that of a child in the sand. But that, in a phrase, captures what National is all about when it comes to foreign policy: a child playing an adult’s game without regard to long-term consequence.

Eventual ratification of the much hyped Trans-Pacific Partnership, should it occur, will not save National from its folly and will in fact exacerbate the tensions between the Chinese and the US. That in turn will have very negative consequences for NZ since it is increasingly dependent on China for trade and on the US/OZ for security. This, with less people employing the skills to smooth over the differences between the two contradictory positions.

Couple the above with the erosion of morale and skill sets within the NZDF as a result of similar cost-cutting measures, and what is left is a shell of NZ’s former international presence. Sometimes the bottom line is not measured in monetary terms but in terms of competence, reputation and committed presence. This is particularly true for international relations, where the belief that NZ punches above its weight in international affairs is being put paid to by National’s incompetence and dogmatism.

In my opinion National has put ideological partisanship ahead of the national interest. If the proposed cuts are more than a bargaining chip, then the only questions left are who will profit from National’s increased privatization and out-sourcing of the country’s international relations and who will pay the price? I suggest that in response to the latter, all Kiwis will pay a price for this decision, including the private interests who may short term profit from National’s grossly myopic and self-interested approach to foreign affairs staffing. Let us remember: most developed states consider foreign policy making and implementation to be an essential and universal function of government not susceptible to narrow partisan logics, precisely because of the long-term common need for diplomatic continuity in a difficult world.


8 Responses to “In an age of increased international interdependence, NZ shrinks diplomatically.”

  1. IHStewart on February 24th, 2012 at 11:00

    Having been quite proud of the independent foreign policy position that was initially carved out by default by the Lange government and progressed on the whole until the Key administration I find this very disappointing.

    Off subject to some degree but the Kim Dot Com saga almost makes me think of New Zealand becoming Americas answer to Chinas Hong Kong, if he has broken NZ law then we should prosecute him. Handing him over to America for ” crimes ” he committed in New Zealand that breach American law strikes me as the new approach this government has taken to issues of sovereignty. As such the McCully / English decision is no surprise but as you say it is short sighted.

  2. Mark Graham on February 24th, 2012 at 14:19

    Given the ringfencing of Social Welfare, Health and Education, which make up by far the greatest portion of Govt spending means all cuts in Govt expenditure must come from the remainder of the Public Service. The whole approach is dumb. And getting dumber.

    BTW – I understand that John Allen, the current MFAT CEO, earning $700,000 or so, oversaw a $40mil loss at NZ Post, not to mention strategic failures.

  3. Hugh on February 24th, 2012 at 16:24

    I’m surprised you have such a high opinion of the value provided by MFAT staff, Pablo.

  4. Pablo on February 25th, 2012 at 15:02

    Although many may think that diplomacy is all cocktail parties and pretentious language, the truth is that it involves very specialized skill sets: proficiency in foreign languages, inter-personal skills, command of technical issues (say, with regards to non-proliferation and arms control), ability to think quickly and engage in crisis management, etc. Although trade is a major component of NZ foreign policy and National seems intent on making it the sole basis for it (presumably leaving the MoD to deal with security issues), foreign policy is not reducible to trade and involves a much broader array of interests and tools than macroeconomic and accounting proficiency. Thus, even if there is “fat” in non-diplomatic positions that might be usefully pruned, the reduction in NZ diplomatic presence and the subjecting of diplomatic personnel to increased job uncertainty whether they be competent or not is policy-making folly at its worst.

  5. RJL on February 28th, 2012 at 12:28

    While there is certainly an element of cocktail parties to diplomacy it is definitely an area where NZ needs capacity and competence.

    It’s when a real diplomatic crises occurs that the sheer idiocy of these cuts will become apparent. And then it will be much, much too late. Key will have “absolutely no clue where [Muzza] is”, our regional embassies will be reduced to 0800 numbers that led to a call centre in Manila, and our armed services will be nothing more than a Page Not Found error on Google.

  6. Hugh on February 28th, 2012 at 12:56

    I’d argue the need is not for more diplomats, but for smarter diplomats.

    Quality, not quantity.

  7. Pablo on February 29th, 2012 at 08:47


    If you re-read the coverage you will note that the issue is not about more diplomats, but less. The proposed cuts target 170 diplomatic positions, with 600 other jobs put on one year contracts whose terms can change year to year. The total job losses amount to 1/5th of the MFAT labour force.

    In other words, the proposed cuts reduce both the quantity and the quality of diplomatic representation.

  8. Hugh on February 29th, 2012 at 12:58

    I meant more diplomats than the government’s target number, not more diplomats than we have now.

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