Out of Their Depth

John Key’s awe–or was it dumb–struck performance at the 2008 APEC meetings in Lima and recent comments made by his Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence (Murray McCully and Wayne Mapp, respectively) do not portend well for the conduct of New Zealand’s foreign affairs. Key quivered about meeting that lame duck named George W. Bush. He gushed about having the opportunity to meet people “he had read about.” He then turned preacher. In his public presentation Key lectured his larger partners about the financial crisis, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his currency speculator past made him especially unsuitable to lecture anyone on the virtues of finance capital–particularly when several APEC partners have already moved away from the neoliberal prescriptions he so fervently embraces. His call for resumption of the Doha round of WTO talks was little more than showboating given that major actors such as Brazil, India and China have made clear that there are limits to openness when it comes to their strategic industries, and the US and other advanced economies continue to subsidise a number of agricultural sectors for political rather than economic purposes. Given that state intervention, in the form of financial bailouts, has become the primary rescue vehicle used by advanced democracies to prevent the utter collapse of their economies, Mr. Key’s pro-market rhetoric rang both hollow and hypocritical–or profoundly naive.

New Zealand media made much of Key’s APEC trip, but no one else did. No deals were struck or progress made on issues of significance to the country. To the contrary. Mr. Key and his “posse” did not even receive audiences with many of the leaders attending the summit. Judging from foreign reports none of Key and co.’s performances with foreign leaders made New Zealand look particularly impressive. From abroad, Key’s APEC sojourn appeared to be a a matter of personal hubris rather than political necessity, or more charitably, a convenient debutant stopover on Key’s trip to meet the Queen.

As for the other two Ministers, McCully allowed himself to be drawn into a sandbox row with Fijian potentate Frank Bainimarama, while Mapp had the dubious honour of having his first public announcement focus on major problems with a number of military projects he earnestly supported while in opposition. In both cases the Ministers appeared unsure and ill-prepared when handling their briefs. Although balanced, McCully’s comments on the Israel-Hamas conflict in late December betrayed an unease seemingly born of the tension between his personal views and those of the foreign policy apparatus of which he is now nominally in charge. The fact that the National government has said nothing on the conflict other than to express regret and urge restraint from afar may be a measure of its indecision as much as diplomatic restraint. The same can be said for its (non) response to the Indian-Pakistani standoff in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks. With two nuclear-armed traditional rivals sabre-rattling at each other, New Zealand, a leader in the nuclear non-proliferation regime, has remained strangely silent on the matter. Why is that?

The trouble for National’s foreign policy neophytes is that when engaging their Ministerial counterparts bilaterally or multilaterally, they may be out of their intellectual and practical depth. Because of their lack of expertise and experience in the realities of realpolitik, they are reliant on the advice of the civil service bureaucrats running the PM’s office (including the External Assessment Bureau) and Ministries of which they are the nominal heads. When this situation of dependence on subordinates is taken to extremes, it might be called the “Peters syndrome:” a politician poses as the driver of foreign policy but the real business of engaging the outside world is conducted by permanent diplomatic staff who brief the Minister of what s/he should know and say about any particular issue.

That may be a saving grace. Unlike Phil Goff, who handled all three portfolios (Trade, Foreign Affairs and Defence) with aplomb, the Key-McCully-Mapp troika appear to be shallow drafts navigating deep seas. To be fair, Tim Grosser, the new Trade Minister who was also at the APEC summit, is a very capable diplomat who knows the substance of his portfolio and did have serious discussions with a limited range of counterparts. But even his perspective betrays an ideological bias in favour of trade for trade’s sake, without the pragmatic assessment of the downside of open economic borders that should be at the core of  any nation’s trade policy, especially peripheral democracies such as NZ.

Unlike Grosser, the rest of the National foreign policy team have no government-level experience in international relations prior to assuming their portfolios. No matter how many briefings attended and policy papers read, being an opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs and defence is not the same as actually doing it (overseas junkets do not count), and being a money changer at a now failed investment bank does not equate to statesmanship. These novice foreign policy horsemen thus enter the international arena almost totally devoid of the academic or practical training that would allow them to successfully engage the likes of Vladimir Putin or Wen Jiabao–or Kevin Rudd, for that matter. That is a diplomatic disadvantage few countries can afford, and which small countries can particularly ill-afford. Yet it might be the price paid for the rush to change governments in 2008.

The word is that John Key is a quick study. Lets hope so, because he has a lot of learning to do in the field of foreign affairs. As for the Mapp-McCully combo, they are examples of how zealous partisanship in opposition brings with it political rewards in government that could prove contrary to the security and diplomatic representation of the country. Think of what a Hillary Clinton-Murry McCully or Wayne Mapp-Robert Gates meeting would be like. Shudder to think at Mapp and McCully negotiating with the Japanese, Koreans or Singaporeans. Niceties aside, without external guidance the Kiwi Ministers would be lucky to come out of such ententes with anything more than a handshake and photo for their office walls. Only Grosser has the acumen to be taken seriously by both his subordinates and foreign counterparts.

Key, Mapp and McCully have an additional problem in that they have exhibited reflexively pro-US positions in the past that are at odds with the thrust of New Zealand’s contemporary foreign and defence policy. They have justified the use of preemptive force in international relations and US actions in the war on terror. They supported the US invasion of Iraq and have said nothing about the use of torture and extraordinary rendition as a tool in the war against terror. They supported sending New Zealand combat troops to Iraq after the UN Security Council refused to authorise the invasion. They whole-heartedly endorsed the passage of anti-terrorist legislation in New Zealand that, to be frank, is more suited for dealing with the threat environment in Karachi than that of Kaikohe. What does that say for the maintenance of an autonomous and independent foreign policy under the National government? Could New Zealand be on the verge of going back to playing imperial servitor to its Cold War masters?

That is where the saving grace lies: in the foreign policy bureaucracy. Continuity in foreign and defence policy is ensured by careerists relatively unencumbered by public or parliamentary scrutiny. To be sure, they are unelected and often unaccountable given public disinterest in foreign relations and global affairs. Yet they nevertheless are the bulwark upon which rests New Zealand’s international relations. Defence and foreign policy bureaucrats with expertise in their fields prepare the substantive terrain upon which any engagement with foreign actors takes place–although they have agendas of their own to pursue (as Ambassador Grosser’s post-diplomatic career demonstrates). Put another way: there exists an institutional platform that constrains attempts to impose drastic or ideologically-driven alterations on New Zealand’s foreign policy orientation, at least over the short term. This does not mean, however, that such changes are impossible.

The entrance of a new cadre of centre-right Ministers inevitably brings with it the prospect of change and the question of Ministerial strength in imposing it. From what has been so far, it appears unlikely that the new foreign policy team will be able to impose its geopolitical vision over the institutional apparatus responsible for implementing it, so relative continuity in relations seems more likely. That is particularly so given National’s foreign and defence policy positions while in opposition during the last decade, which differ from the views espoused by Key, McCully and Mapp in significant ways.

National in opposition agreed that the non-nuclear policy and the elimination of the air combat wing were correct decisions. It supported opening to Asia as a preferential trading partner and continuation of a post Cold War strategic outlook that emphasizes a mix of combat and non-combat roles as part of mulitlateral operations in low intensity environments, along with maritime patrol, search and rescue and humanitarian relief operations. It supports the “soft” power notion that foreign aid programmes are an effective instrument of foreign policy. In other words, in recent years National as a party has toed Labour’s foreign and defence policy lines even as Key, Mapp and McCully expressed views that often ran counter to them.

The question remains whether this non-aligned policy, which mixes idealism in foreign affairs with pragmatic assessments of military-diplomatic realities in a context of globalised production, exchange and consumption in which New Zealand is a niche export platform, will give way to a more bilateral and US-centric approach under the National foreign policy team. It also begs whether National will be more likely to send New Zealand troops into harm’s way at the behest of its “traditional” allies, and whether it will diminish its involvement in UN sanctioned peacekeeping and nation-building missions as a result. It raises concerns that trade will become a foreign policy fixation of the new government to the point that diplomatic and security policy is constructed around it rather than in parallel, with soft power initiatives downplayed in favour of trade-based bargaining.

All of this is particularly relevant given the National-led government’s proposed “razor gang” approach to reducing the public service. Put another way, if ACT has its way within the governing coalition, will cuts be made in the ranks of career foreign policy officials, and if so, will it happen to those who do not pay homage to the pro-market, pro-US agenda extolled by National’s foreign policy team?

The issue reduces to who is going to run the foreign policy ship of state under the National government, and how is that going to translate into effective international relations for New Zealand over the next three years. Be it troop commitments to Afghanistan, intelligence-sharing with France or US conditions for entry into the P4 trade partnership (which currently involves New Zealand, Chile, Brunei and Singapore), this is no time for amateurs and ideologues to be playing against professionals. It also is no time to have Ministers espousing views that differ, if not contradict long-standing foreign policy positions. Thus, something will have to give when it comes to National’s handling of the foreign affairs and defence portfolios.

For the short term it may be wise to leave the immediate conduct of foreign and defence policy to their respective bureaucrats, as informed by parliamentary debate rather than Ministerial imposition. Under the Labour government there was too little debate and too much executive imposition, but at least those doing the imposing were seasoned political veterans with experience in their respective areas of responsibility who adhered to long-term foreign policy lines. After years in the opposition woods, National has no such talent to draw on, although it may nevertheless attempt to impose changes in New Zealand’s foreign policy stance without debate or consultation. After all,  its authoritarian impulses have been made evident by its rush to use parliamentary urgency in order to pass controversial legislation, so it would not entirely surprising if it attempted to do the same with regard to foreign policy. With all of that in mind, let us hope that cooler heads in the foreign policy and security apparatus prevail upon the more impulsive tendencies of their virginal Ministers and that coherence in New Zealand’s approach to the outside world remains a practical standard rather than a rhetorical objective.

10 thoughts on “Out of Their Depth

  1. Pingback: KiwiPolitico started at The Standard 2.02

  2. And not just McCully, Mapp and Key. Four times in about a fortnight I’ve heard RNZ’s education reporter say “Education Minister Anne Tolley has bbeen unavailable for comment”. She clearly has no grasp of the detail of her portfolio.

    I am also from Tolley’s home town of Napier, and if even half the rumours about this woman are true then education is in deep trouble.

  3. the platitudes and hollow nature of the National party men is going to become increasingly apparent, but the one thing that was immediately clear when John Key first strode the world stage is that the man is just such a goober!

  4. This must always be a challenge for a new government full of new and inexperienced ministers (and Prime Minister in this case).

    How do new ministers get on top of complex policy areas and (ideally) not look like dicks in public too often? Relying on existing public servants would make it too easy for the status quo to continue, but relying on newbies has a series of looking-like-a-dick risks :)

  5. I have serious doubts that Tolly (amongst a few others) actually has the intellectual capacity to do the job. I predict she will amongst the first to go in a scandal.

  6. As a blog start this is underwhelming. So John Key was both gushing and preaching? wow. He must be schizo as well as a hugely successful businessman.

    clark was less internationally aware than Key at the start of her premiership as was most of her team.

    It is reasonably obvious to anyone objective that Key went to Lima to establish personal contacts at a premiership level as soon as he could given the global economic conditions. He was listened to respectfully by a weighty international audience.

    You will have to do better than this wittering if you are to be taken any more seriously than the Labour Standard

  7. Phil, It’s not clear why being gushing and preachy should imply schizophrenia, but I guess your first substantive point is:
    “clark was less internationally aware than Key at the start of her premiership as was most of her team.”

    And on this, you couldn’t be more wrong, unless your conception of “international” is the high-end bars and restaurants of Manhattan, and conoodling with the people who have done so much to sink capitalism. FYI, Helen Clark’s principal interest for decades before entering Parliament was foreign affairs. She amassed a vast array of international contacts and experience as well as a truly formidable grasp of the theory. In Parliament, she built on these and inter alia chaired the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Select Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control. John Boy looks amateur hour by comparison.

    You could argue that Clark’s near obsession with foreign affairs at the expense of economics left the door open to Douglas and his mates, but that’s another matter…

  8. Phil: It is obvious you do not read the Latin American, US or Asian press, because if you did you would have to admit that Key and co. were marginal–some might say minuscule–players at APEC. The talks about the “global economic conditions” you mention were conducted by the big players–you surely are aware that China, Russia, Japan, Mexico and the US were attending, among others–and Key did not get a look in edgewise. His public talk was held early on the morning of the opening day when most of the other leaders were asleep or having breakfast. Since APEC is really just a forum for countries to engage in bilateral side discussions rather than establish general objectives, the fact that nothing of bilateral substance for NZ was achieved there–given that the Labour government would have handed him a full dossier of things to be done and initiatives to pursue–indicates how lightly Key was taken by his foreign counterparts. So stop with your nonsense in his defense. He has a lot to learn before he commands respect on the international stage (something Clark had no matter how you feel about her), and his chief lieutenants on foreign policy (except Groser) are simply not yet up to the task of carrying the water for him.

  9. google john key apec 53000 results. google helen clark apec. 29400 results. Google “John Key” apec 24000, “helen clark” apec 27100.

    So John Key gets almost as many mentions from 2 months of activity vs helen clark and 9 years. The guy had been in the job for 2 days. ON what planet do you have to be to expect that the leader of a nation of 4 million in job for 2 days would be taken seriously by global leaders.
    I would have been gobsmacked if a breakfast for business leaders was attended by any world leaders. He performed credibly in the context. But you seem unwilling to recognise that.

    John Key has some respect on international business stage. He will earn more as time passes.

    It seems you completely discount anything to do with commerce and industry in forming your conclusions and and writing pedantic nit picking commentary.

    I remain underwhelmed

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