Coleman’s Cultural Cringe Moment.

For some time I have had the impression that Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman is out of his depth on issues of defense and security, so I was not surprised by his joyful celebration of the signing of a bi-lateral defense pact with the US. Master of the flak jacket photo op, it was all sunshine and roses for Dr. Coleman at the Pentagon press conference, where he emphasized that US and NZDF troops would be training and working together on peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance missions in between group hugs and port visits. He seemed blissfuly unaware that US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, standing beside him at the press conference, made no mention of the kumbaya aspects of the bilateral, instead referring to the combat integration benefits of closer military-to-military relations.

What I was surprised at was how provincial and just plain goofy Coleman appeared to be. Among other country bumpkin moments, he dismissed concerns about US spying on New Zealand by referencing an editorial cartoon that had spies falling asleep listening to NZ communications; he outright lied and said that the NZ government would not say anything in private that it would not say in public (which makes its silence on the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations all the more suspicious); he never once countenanced the thought that the bilateral might be part of the US strategic pivot towards Asia (in a military way), or that China might view the bilateral with some concern; and for a Pièce de résistance, he whipped out a junior sized All Blacks jersey and foisted it on the unsuspecting Hagel.

The last moment was gold. Hagel acted as if he was not sure what the piece of black cloth was all about. A pirate flag? A tea towel? Something for Halloween? Then Coleman did the most crassly egregious act of sponsor placement I have ever seen in an official government ceremony by turning the jersey to the cameras with all front logos on display (the back had Hagel’s name and the number 1 on it).  AIG and Adidas would not have believed their luck, but what does it say about Dr. Coleman and his government that he/they thought it appropriate to shill for sports team sponsors at such an event?

The usual protocol for government to government exchanges of sporting symbols (most often on the occasion of bi- or multination sporting events) is to keep the colors and national crests but not the commercial logos. Such exchanges are done at the conclusion of formal meetings, with approved media doing the coverage on cue. Otherwise, the exchange is approved at press conference photo opportunities by prior consent. This avoids impromptu, ad lib or extemporaneous embarrassments or hijacks of the media op, to say nothing of security breaches.

On this the ritual of public diplomacy is pretty clear: public posturing and grandstanding is expected, but surprises are not.

In this instance Secretary Hagel was clearly surprised by the unilateral token of affection. He had nothing to give in return in front of the cameras. That means that the NZ embassy in Washington was incompetent, deliberately mean or ignored in the decision as to choice of gift as well as the way in which to present it, because it is brutally clear that Coleman and his staff were clueless as to the symbolism and significance of their preferred option for a unilateral, unscripted gift.

Lets ponder this. Coleman and his staff decided that the best gift to give the US Secretary of Defense on the occasion of signing a major bilateral military agreement ending years of estrangement was a replica jersey for a commonwealth sport barely recognized outside of some hard core devotee circles in the US. He might as well given him a surf lifesaving jersey.

I would have thought that a Mere pounamu, or better yet a Taiaha or Pouwhenua (to signify continued distance), would have been more appropriate for the occasion. With some advance warning (perhaps in consultation with the US embassy in Wellington), such a gift would be appreciated in its full significance by the US counterparts and transmitted as such to the interested public. Instead, the most powerful US civilian decision maker on military matters was given a piece of quick-dry, stretchable artificial cloth with corporate logos as a symbol of New Zealand’s commitment to first-tier military relations.

Coleman compounded the back-handed compliment with the jersey sponsorship display, thereby commercializing the event. To be honest, I could not believe what I was seeing and can only imagine what the Americans thought. I say this because in a former life I was party to such official ceremonies involving the US Defense Department and allied nation officials, and it was simply unimaginable that someone would attempt to push product, however unintentionally, during a symbolic gift exchange. That is why the display was so utterly cringe worthy.

In general though, I was not surprised by Coleman’s hillbilly-in-the-big-city moment. After all, if the Prime Minister, as Minister of Intelligence and Security, says that he cannot be bothered asking the GCSB questions about US spying on its allies, then it is no wonder that Dr. Coleman thinks that US spies are asleep and the US government is up with the play when it comes to the All Black nation.

9 thoughts on “Coleman’s Cultural Cringe Moment.

  1. We could salvage some modicum of national pride out of it if the Jethro Clampett act really was just an act and our clever and devious leaders were playing the US administration for suckers. Unfortunately for our self-respect, Jethro Clampett isn’t an act.

  2. It was little short of a banjo pickin’ and tub thumpin’ performance, and not by the former Senator from Nebraska.

  3. Perhaps the aim with the jersey gift was to steal the show, as it were. They had to have a press conference to announce the closer military ties, but in the wake of endless revelations of American spying abuses, the idea of close military ties may not have played well with the NZ public. But throw in the All Blacks angle and all of a sudden the journalists have an easy story to churn out.

  4. Pablo, what disturbs me about this post of yours is that in my admittedly very limited experience* MFAT staff are extremely competent and professional, the best of the NZ public service. How could the NZ Embassy in DC have let Coleman walk into such a massive faux pas? You have far more experience of such things than me, but from what I’m reading I can only assume that the advice of NZ Embassy DC was either rejected or just plain bypassed.

    *99% of which has been obtaining documents from Internal Affairs through the good offices and diplomated bags of the NZ Embassy Beijing, the other 1% being superb help dealing with an incident involving a teacher we fired – no details on that because it involves said teacher’s state of health.

  5. Chris:
    I tend to agree with you, which is why I included the term ignored in the sentence about the embassy in DC. I doubt that they are incompetent but had to cover all possibilities, the other of which is that they were being mean spirited by telling Coleman’s staff that a foisting a jersey on SecDef at the presser was Ok. But my core belief is that the embassy was not even consulted. Oh well, at least he and his staff did not try to pull off one of those gnarly white boy hakas.

  6. I generalize here… New Zealanders are in the most part… culturally inept

    For a minister of a small, insignificant and far away country to play the fool in the presence of the
    US state department is just MIND BLOWINGLY CHILDISH

  7. Edward, I think us Kiwis do have a problem in that we often come across as a touch naive overseas – and that is often because many of us are rather naive about the big, wide world out here. But I think a bigger problem is the lack of attention given to the study of foreign languages and cultures* and the resulting lack of understanding of other ways of doing business. I think, however, “culturally inept” is a bit of an overstatement. We don’t lack the ability, we lack the cultural emphasis on learning other languages and cultures. But this is all dragging the comments way off topic.

    *Or even Maori language and culture, which is by no means foreign, but which would at least open a few Pakeha eyes to the possibility of viewing the world in other ways.

  8. Thanks Chris. Very observant. You raise some good points

    Look at it this way

    In foreign counties, job advertisements may state
    ( foreign language) to a degree of ( level ) ESSENTIAL.
    ie If you don’t have this skill, don’t bother applying.

    In New Zealand, job advertisements state ( Language )
    ie Nice skills to have, but not the clincher

  9. In reality Chuck Hagel should not be taken very seriously. He is essentially the sort of US Defence Sec you have when the President wants to control defence policy and dosen’t want another Gates.
    At the NZ political cultural level it in Nat/Lab convention not to take the capabilities of the NZDF very seriously. Goff always derides any idea that NZ has serious combat capability and argues it is very undesirable NZ have any real capability to monitor sub movements in our area, ‘were better off not knowing’ and that a furthur upgrade of the Orions with modern sonar buoy processing capabilities or MAD is undesirable.
    However recently the NZDF has announced plans partly approved two extraordinary purchases which has passed without comment from the media. There do not seem to be any real defence reporters in NZ now. I am apparently persona non grata- for opposing the Anzac frigates- too slow, too large undisciplined crews, too noisy and pointing out the truth at the time of the Anzus crisis. That even with Mk 48 torpedoes on USN and RAN subs, tactical nukes were the only quick and effective response to Soviet subs and that the RN really had no conventional a/s capability as the Falklands demonstrated the Tigerfish torpeodes achieving no more capability in the late 1980s than that of USN Mk 37 in the late 1960s.
    Why are we buying all the failed 3rd had RAN Seasprites when Karman has long closed down and why buy the British long range sea ceptor missiles.

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