New Zealand career diplomat Gerald McGhie witnessed the fall of Gorbachev and the rise of Yeltsin when he served as our ambassador to Russia – but seems to have seen nuzzink, writes reviewer Tony Simpson.
I have encountered quite a number of New Zealand foreign service staff, some at quite senior levels in my own career in public service stretching over five decades, and they almost all have an immediately identifiable and extremely irritating characteristic. They are apparently trained from the outset to engage in conversation with a fluent and affable manner without actually saying anything in particular. Gerald McGhie’s book is a tribute to the success of that training.
The author spent 40 years in our diplomatic service, including two stints in Russia, first when it was the Soviet Union (1979-81) during the Brezhnev era, and then immediately after the collapse of the Soviet regime. He was Our Man in Moscow during the failed coup by the displaced rulers, the fall of Gorbachev, and the rise of Yeltsin; each day brought new and alarming events, and the streets were quite literally full of tanks. To be a close-up observer of serious mass street demonstrations and real shootings, entailing the close range destruction of the Russian parliament (so close that it rattled the windows he was looking out from), is the sort of experience many journalists of my acquaintance would sell their souls for. Some have already sold their souls for a great deal less. But although McGhie notes his presence at and witness to these things, it all comes out as completely bloodless.
I spent about 10 days in the USSR also during the Brezhnev era myself and in that short period I was able to garner enough impressions and observations to find a use for them in one anecdotal form or another for the next four decades. I’ve still not used them all up. It was a fascinating experience both at the time and in retrospect; it may well have been for McGhie, also but you wouldn’t have an inkling of that from this book.
As a diplomat he may have been great shakes. I have no way of judging that, and his book doesn’t help me. But as a writer he simply doesn’t make the cut. There’s no drama or atmosphere or even what it feels like to be right there as a revolution takes place in a major world power.
McGhie also spent major time in Samoa and in Papua New Guinea, again as a senior diplomat. What did he make of these fascinating societies, the former of which has an important historical and cultural relationship with this country? Nothing much. Of course he does approach his potential subject but it simply isn’t enough to briefly mention the 1918 influenza epidemic and the subsequent Mau insurgency (of which most New Zealanders have no knowledge) and the shadow they continue to cast on Samoa-New Zealand relationships to this day, and to then pass over them as if they have no significance worth pausing to dwell upon or even to background beyond a few references.
Possibly the failure of this book is down to McGhie’s writing style, such as it is. He’s the master of the non sequitur. A classic instance is when he breaks off a description of the events of the breakup of the Soviet Union to mention in a couple of sentences a social function held to farewell a colleague who had briefly and previously appeared in the general narrative, but has no relevance to the events he has just been describing, and of whom we don’t hear again. It reads as if he kept a daily diary and when it came to writing this book he dumped undigested wodges of it on the page.
It raises an interesting subsidiary question in my mind about the value of the reports and analyses he was presumably sending back to his masters in Wellington. More to the point allusion and innuendo are all very well within the closed circle of foreign service personnel but this is a book for a wider audience (I presume), and so the subtleties which might pass for informed comment within the foreign service culture are lost on those who might read the book for enlightenment and information. Our diplomats appear to live in a hermetic world inhabited only by their colleagues and their international counterparts.
There’s potentially an enlightening chapter on New Zealand’s relationships with South Africa. This is a matter of considerable significance to the development of our society over the three decades from the 1970s onwards. During that time our political culture went through a very important sea change, and because we had no specific vocabularies of our own in which to encompass this, we used the question of our relationship to apartheid South Africa as the field on which to work through the challenges and conflicts that raised and entailed. We are still doing so.
But McGhie appears to have no understanding of that. He was clearly mystified, as an instance, by Trevor Richards of whom he remarks in respect of meeting with him: “He did not shrink from ringing rhetoric, as well as selecting carefully among the issues and choosing the one that best suited his argument. Over many further meetings and experiencing the depth of his knowledge on apartheid issues, I gained some respect for his position . . . We in the Ministry could not match the passion of the anti-apartheid representatives’ presentations. Our traditional role was to provide balanced and detailed analysis with clearly addressed statements of possible consequences.”
He simply didn’t know where people like Richards were coming from. To him South Africa constituted a set of professional and technical diplomatic problems which had to be resolved so that they did not interfere with more immediate, and presumably important, trade and sporting objectives. There are no moral or ethical judgements involved. To be fair McGhie makes it clear that he was not in New Zealand during the furore over the 1981 Tour. Perhaps, having missed this experience, he doesn’t understand the underlying emotional context.
This points up something of which McGhie himself seems uneasily aware, however dimly. He says at one point as he reflects more generally on our foreign policy that (rather pretentiously I thought citing Castiglione’s The Courtier) it is important for any negotiator to eschew personal enthusiasms, vanities and animosities and that the work of diplomats “sometimes leads to charges of elitism”. But after a spurious justification of such an elitism in terms of our international sporting professionalism (not, in fact, an elitism but a mass cultural commodification), he retreats from this subversive thought into the respectable and orthodox discretion which is the hallmark of his book and his profession.
It’s hardly surprising, given that he now plays a senior executive role in the Institute of International Affairs, a body which although nominally speaking is quite independent of any official line is widely recognised as an adjunct of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There was no need for him to do discretion. He is no longer a public servant, and we have no official secrets legislation here, but he chooses that path nevertheless. In fact, the real problem with this book is that it is riddled with such discretions, and as a result it undermines any usefulness it might otherwise possess as a window on at least one part of what has become known in wider analytic circles as “the deep state”. An opportunity regrettably lost.
Balancing Acts: Reflections of a New Zealand Diplomat by Gerald McGhie (Dunmore Press, $35) is available at Unity Books.