Mission to nowhere.

It is said that the who and when of diplomatic missions tells much about the disposition of the government sending them. If that is true, then consider this.

The most important annual Trans-Pacific diplomatic (APEC) meetings are being held in Bali this week. John Key and Tim Groser are there, once again pushing their trade-first (only?) agenda in the main sessions and back rooms.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Murray McCully is on a mission to Antarctica.

Since Antarctica has no diplomatic agencies on its soil, it seems odd that the foreign minister is headed that way in the absence of a treaty signing or other diplomatic event. His press release states that the visit, his first, is because he is the minister responsible for New Zealand’s Antarctic Affairs and that along with his visit to Scott Base he will head to the US base at McMurdo Sound. But there is nothing diplomatic on his agenda.

Mr. McCully is not a minister for anything scientific, so he is not discharging science portfolio responsibilities by visiting one of the research stations on the continent. Perhaps, as Minister of Sports and Recreation, he is looking into possibilities along those lines, especially since he was flown down on an Air Force plane along with 117 others plus the 11 person Air Force crew.

But if he is not engaged in anything other than a tour of the realm, why is he not with other Trans-Pacific foreign ministers in Bali? Is this the contemporary equivalent of the colonial practice of assigning diplomats in disgrace to a posting in Brazzaville? Is Antarctica New Zealand’s diplomatic version of the Mosquito Coast?

MFAT and National will say that he was superfluous to requirements in Bali (not exactly in that language) because the PM and Trade Minister are there. That tells us two things.

On the international relations front it confirms that New Zealand’s foreign policy is dominated by a trade fixation (fetishism?) that has come to dominate all other aspects of New Zealand’s diplomatic endeavor. In spite of Mr. Key’s posturing at the UN with regard to UN reform, weapons non-proliferation and multilateral intervention in search for votes for a Security Council temporary seat next year, the hard fact is that New Zealand’s diplomatic ranks have been purged, one way or another, of arms control and non-proliferation specialists, climate change and human rights experts and many other senior diplomats whose primary expertise lies outside the realm of trade. They have been replaced by younger, less costly and more narrowly focused trade zealots (many riding on Groser’s coat tails) whose knowledge and experience in other diplomatic fields is comparatively thin.

This has been accompanied by out-sourcing lead responsibility for intelligence sharing and security assistance negotiations to the GCSB, SIS and NZDF, which is one of the reasons, in concert with the trade fixation, that New Zealand’s foreign relations have taken a distinctly schizophrenic look under National (trade with the East, defend with the West, even if the PRC and US are on a collision course for supremacy in the Western Pacific).

One might respond that spy agencies and armed forces should cut their own deals with foreign counterparts, since it is their business after all. But that is precisely why diplomatic intercession is required–securing the national interest is a long-term game played on many fronts that is not reducible to bureaucratic self-interest, making friends amongst foreign counterparts, or currying immediate favor. It is a fluid balancing game rather than a static one-off opportunity, which is why allowing spooks and uniforms to dictate the terms of engagement on matters of intelligence and security is less than ideal. That is particularly so when the ministers in charge of security and intelligence as well as military affairs are less than conversant with the nature of the operations they are responsible for and where there is no independent oversight of their decisions regarding the conduct of those operations.

Likewise, trade zealots need to have their single-minded obsession with neo-Ricardian prescriptions tempered by those who understand that the world is not solely dominated by trade balances and import/export quotas, tariffs, licensing and the other minutiae of cross-border economic interaction. Important as these are, they need to be considered in relation to other areas of diplomatic endeavor so that coherence, congruence and continuity in foreign affairs can be achieved and maintained. The latter is important for no other reason than it helps establish and maintain a nation’s reputation as a global actor.

New Zealand’s reputation as a global actor has transformed under National from that of an independent and autonomous honest broker into that of a wheeling, dealing “free” trading operator that hedges its bets by cozying up to the world military superpower. It remains to be seen how tenable this position will be over the long-term.

On the internal front McCully’s Antarctic junket offers proof that he is an outcast within his own party, a pariah best unseen and unheard. He has no significant allies in the Collins or Joyce factions of the National caucus and no real friends elsewhere. He has no discernible influence on foreign policy, serving more as a spokesperson and chief of ceremony. The weeks before his trip to the frozen continent he was flitting about the US and Caribbean, visiting the America’s Cup before heading to the UN for some meeting and greeting, then onto bilaterals with Caribbean counterparts. Prior to that he was at the Pacific Island Forum in the Marshall Islands, preceded by trips to Hong Kong, China and Mongolia, Melanesia and the Cook Islands and Africa and the Seychelles. He presented many gifts to a variety of dignitaries from far-off lands and wore colorful shirts as much as he did suits. He did little hard negotiating.

That is a lot of time spent abroad during times when parliament is sitting, particularly when the bulk of the trips were for more symbolic than significant purposes. Come to think of it, when was the last time he answered a question in the debating chamber? I may have missed it but he does seem conspicuous by his absence.

In effect, McCully has been given a comfy sinecure to ensure that he stays away from his own caucus and steers clear of involvement in the “real” business of foreign affairs, that being trade. This neuters him in terms of the internal politics within National as well as with regard to foreign policy making (which is now the province of Groser and his minions). This is a variation on the theme used by Labour with respect to Winston Peters, when he became a Foreign Minister not in cabinet who spent a similar amount of time as McCully does exploring the far–and nicer–reaches of the globe. Except Antarctica.

And we have paid for all of it.


23 thoughts on “Mission to nowhere.

  1. I’m no supporter of McCully or his government, but it strikes me as entirely appropriate for the Foreign Minister to go to Antarctica. International cooperation is a massive part of NZ’s Antarctic program, and NZ operations there take place within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty, which comes under McCully’s portfolio. Dealing with Antarctic issues is a big part of the Foreign Minister’s jobs, so getting some boots-on-the-ground experience couldn’t hurt.

  2. Of course Hugh, how could I overlook your brilliant insight into the importance of Antarctica in the larger scheme of things. The heck with trivia like arms control, the NPT and humanitarian assistance! We have an Antarctic Treaty to maintain!

    But if dealing with Antarctica is a big part of foreign minister’s jobs, as you so eloquently state, then why the heck is there no other foreign minister down there? And if international cooperation is so massive for NZ, why the heck is he not cooperating with other foreign ministers in Bali? After all, his trip to Scott Base is an inspection tour with a side trip to McMurdo, so there is no treaty signing/reaffirming/reassuring/cooperation reinforcement going on.

    When was the last time a US SecState paid a visit to Antarctica? Or the Russian, British, or Australian foreign ministers? Does it not strike you as the least bit odd that at a time when all other APEC foreign ministers are in Bali, our foreign policy champion is mixing it up with the penguins and seals? Is there a friggin’ sled dog race going on that he is MC’ing as Minister of Sports and Recreation?

    Your comment is as usual directed at an off-kilter tangent that in no way addresses the substance of the post. So please desist from commenting further on this issue.

  3. I’d have thought that given the TPP activities happening at Bali the trade ministers presence at the largest trade deal negotiations we have been involved with in a long time might be of some importance.
    On a related note to the Bali meetings, Haydyn Green from Consumer NZ has put together quite a good TPP blog post on the Public address website if you have not already read it, it is well worth a perusing.


  4. Dave: I do not dispute that Groser and Key should be there. But the APEC meetings are more than just about trade and foreign ministers are pretty much expected to attend whether or not they have trade in their portfolios. So are senior defense officials if bilateral or multilateral security concerns are expected to be on the agenda.

    The thrust of the post is McCully’s ostracism. He could have done his junket to Antarctica at any time, especially in summer when weather conditions are more favorable. The fact that he did it, or perhaps better said, was told to do it the same week as APEC pretty much says it all. I reckon he will be out of parliament before the next election.

  5. “Of course Hugh, how could I overlook your brilliant insight into the importance of Antarctica in the larger scheme of things. The heck with trivia like arms control, the NPT and humanitarian assistance! We have an Antarctic Treaty to maintain!”

    Well, I wasn’t saying that none of those things were important. Not sure how you got that impression. There’s no call for the ‘brilliant insight’ sarcasm either, if you don’t mind.

    “But if dealing with Antarctica is a big part of foreign minister’s jobs, as you so eloquently state, then why the heck is there no other foreign minister down there? ”

    Well, he’s not the only diplomat to visit. Ban Ki Moon has been, as did a US Senate delegation a few years back. You’re right, there are no treaties to sign, but it’s a fact finding visit.

  6. I should point out it seems to be pretty standard practice for every NZ Foreign Minister to get down to Antarctica at least once. Goff went, Peters went, Don McKinnon went. It’d be a bit odd if McCully never went – in fact you could argue he’s been tardy in taking nearly five years to get down there!

  7. Hugh:

    I realize that you are a bit thick and a nitpicking troll at best, but do you not understand that the post is not about Antarctica or its relative non-importance to NZ? Do you think that Key, Groser. Joyce or Collins give a flying f**k about the Southern ice melt?

    Let me s-p-e-l-l it out for you: the post is about the one dimensional NZ foreign policy and McCully being a pariah, which is why he was sent there at the same time as the APEC summit. And at the same time as the US government shutdown, which makes that McMurdo Sound side-trip is even less consequential.

    Moon and the Senate delegation were there to observe scientific research, not as foreign ministers. Can you not comprehend the difference? The other NZ foreign ministers you mention went at times that did not conflict with APEC meetings, or anything else of import for that matter. The timing of this visit is different, and very telling.

    Do you not think this junket into oblivion has not been noted by foreign governments, which means McCully will never be taken seriously (if he still is) by anyone of consequence because he carries not friggin’ weight?

    The dumb arse trolling must stop. No further warning will be given.

    Oh, and do not tell me that I am being unreasonably mean. You are like the person who gets invited to a birthday party who after arriving starts pointing out how the curtains do not match the fabric on the furniture, the appetizers could use more spice, the free drinks are only poured halfway up the glass and the host’s children have bad skin, which means that their diets are poor as a result of bad parenting.

  8. Pablo, I’m happy to discuss the content of your post, but I’d really prefer if you refrain from calling me thick or making other personal attacks.

  9. I have had enough of your comments for the time being. I therefore suggest that you take a break from commenting on my posts. If you choose not to do so I will do the breaking for you. You are welcome to comment on other colleague’s posts.

  10. Spare me the lecture.

    Hugh and I have a long history of tangling over his remarks, 90 percent of which are not relevant to the posts I write. I do not concern myself about his comments on Lew or Anita’s posts, not do I interfere when he and other commentators are debating some (often tangental) issue in the threads of posts I have written.

    I draw the line on irrelevant and inconsequential thread jacks directed at me, which is what I believe Hugh is most interested in doing. Thus my request for him to give me a break rather than have me ban him. in due course he can come back, hopefully with a better attitude.

  11. http://tinyurl.com/lputc9q
    Pablo, I’m going to assume you’ve seen this interview in the Herald. Reading it reminded me so much of this post – amidst all the pathetically soft questions and answers were a few that had me thinking “Shouldn’t that be Murray McCully’s job?”

    Oh, and this makes me wonder:
    “The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib said to me last night we should think about teaching more Bahasa Indonesia.”

    Really? Not Bahasa Melayu? Does MFAT need to assign a team to ensure Key gets his languages right?

  12. Chris: I had a similar reaction.

    As for the questions.”Who are your texting buddies?” Geez.

    One irony in the questions about language training is that Indonesian used to be taught at Auckland University but the program was killed off in the early 2000s by the geniuses running the place. Not enough bums in seats apparently.

  13. That reminds me of my time at Otago and threatened cutbacks to the French, German and Classics departments and the closure of the Russian department. Again, bums on seats. I stood up at a meeting of staff and students and said, “My name is Chris, I study French, German and Russian”. One of my lecturers later told me that as soon as I said that, the guy next to him said, “well, you’re screwed then, mate”. I did manage to get a degree worth something… But I look at the Otago website now and I’m horrified. I never could figure out why a country so entirely dependent on international trade values the learning of foreign languages so poorly.

    Meanwhile, has John Key been reading up on modern Chinese history? Mysterious plane crashes in remote regions are quite effective methods of removing inconvenient politicians, and I read poor Murray had a bit of a close call. Now I need a “tongue in cheek” HTML tag.

  14. Pablo: have you tried just not responding to his posts? Someone coming to this post without any knowledge of the history you two have could quite easily get the impression that anyone who disagrees with you – or genuinely misses your point – will be subject to personal abuse. (Note I’m not saying you actually do this, just that it could look that way to the new reader.) It doesn’t exactly create an atmosphere conducive to open debate.

    Obviously it’s your blog and you can respond to people how you want. But if you would like your posts to spark genuine debate, you might want to think about how some of your comments look to the general reader.

  15. helenalex:

    I see your point and have taken it on board. Hugh and I have a fairly long history so I assume that other regular readers are familiar with it. As it turns out, he just gets under my skin (deliberately, I suspect), so I lose patience quickly.

    The only person ever banned here is a fellow by the name of Paul Scott (aka Peter Quixote and most recently lolitasbrother), whose trolling even got Lew annoyed (and Lew is a far more patient person than I am). Heck, even that sorry sack redbaiter has been allowed to rant here, although he seems to be smart enough to realize he is in over his head.

    Hugh is not on that miserable level. In fact, if you are reading this Hugh you are welcome to come back. Just please choose your line of attack carefully and focus on the substance of posts.

  16. Pablo, that’s kind of you to offer, but I’m having seriously conflicted thoughts about taking you up on your offer. I may contact you about it later.

  17. Just for the record, based on some private correspondence between Pablo and I, it seems I won’t be returning, as his conditions for refraining from personally insulting me are conditions I don’t feel able to meet.

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