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 PiÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance, 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). Â 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.