As NZ marks a major anniversary for what is now called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Michael Appleton explains what it is that he and his fellow diplomats actually do
New Zealand’s first professional diplomat, Carl Berendsen, was positioned in the Prime Minister’s Department; from 1926 till 1943, he was essentially our one-person foreign service. In 1943, while still at war with Germany and Japan, the Peter Fraser-led First Labour government established the Department of External Affairs to manage our international relations.
The department’s contemporary successor, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), is currently celebrating 75 years of a New Zealand foreign service. A conference commemorating this anniversary, called “An Eye, an Ear and a Voice”, was held in Wellington on 18 October. The conference title refers to a telegram sent by Berendsen, in which he insisted that New Zealand must have “an eye, an ear and a voice … wherever world events are being settled”.
What do New Zealand diplomats actually do?
I’ve been a New Zealand diplomat for 13 years, with postings in Timor-Leste, the United States and India. A common question I get asked by Kiwis is: “what do diplomats actually do?” The proportion of New Zealanders who know the answer to that question is fairly small. As Georgina Roberts, MFAT’s Director of Pacific Connections told the conference: “Explaining what MFAT does is a challenge … we need to get that message into our universities, our schools, our hapū, iwi, kura kaupapa and whānau.”
This lack of public understanding of MFAT’s role can be a problem. How can New Zealand diplomats expect to have a social licence to operate around the world if the people we represent don’t know what we do? As Foreign Minister Winston Peters told the conference: “We all have to do more to explain what we do … [MFAT] cannot operate in some upper echelon that is inaccessible to the public.”
There is a growing recognition within MFAT that we can do more to tell our story publicly and to bring along the Kiwis affected by the foreign and trade policies that we advocate and negotiate. This should come naturally because the eye, the ear and the voice of diplomacy are all about communication: observing world events that impact New Zealand; listening to different people’s perspectives; and then clearly communicating New Zealand’s position to people who we need to influence. This is the bread-and-butter of diplomatic work offshore, but MFAT perhaps came later to the realization that very often we need to communicate as clearly with New Zealand audiences as we do to foreign ones.
So, what did I do as a diplomat while offshore? I did reporting: making contacts, asking them questions about events in their country, and then sending written reports home about implications for New Zealand. I did problem solving for New Zealanders: for example, helping NZ businesses struggling with new rules and regulations, assisting Kiwi holidaymakers in Nepal following its devastating April 2015 earthquake, and visiting New Zealanders far from home who got in trouble with the law. And I did advocacy: I presented the New Zealand government position to host authorities on issues as diverse as streamlining border security processes; requesting better visa access for Kiwis; and arguing for the ability of Kiwi journalists to report unhindered overseas.
A New Zealand diplomat’s overseas work is certainly not all cocktail parties. As a teetotaler, I am very grateful for this. Every day serving offshore, I woke up thinking about how to make a difference for New Zealanders. Every Kiwi diplomat does.
How do we make our foreign service more representative of New Zealand?
When New Zealand established a foreign service in 1943, it was a thoroughly British country. Upon declaring war on Germany in 1939, Acting Prime Minister Peter Fraser said: “We range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go. Where she stands, we stand.”
In the past 75 years, New Zealand has become demographically and diplomatically a far less European country, and a far more Asia-Pacific one. The 1945 census recorded just 4% of New Zealanders as being born outside either New Zealand or the United Kingdom; the equivalent number in the 2013 census was 20%. Our Asian communities, which collectively made up less than half of one percent of the New Zealand population in 1945, now comprise almost 15% of Kiwis.
But MFAT has not always kept pace with New Zealand’s demographic changes: our diplomats are, on average, more European and less Asian, Māori and Pasifika than the general population. Rau Kirikiri, a diplomat in the 1970s, told the conference that when he joined the New Zealand foreign service he was just one of two Māori diplomats. When he travelled to the United States, people did not believe him when he said he was from New Zealand. “Until MFAT is truly reflective of our bicultural and multicultural society, people will be mystified as to what New Zealand is,” he said.
This is an issue that MFAT has sought to address in recent years: pursuing recruitment policies that generate a more diverse applicant pool for diplomatic roles; and working harder to make MFAT a place that New Zealanders of all backgrounds feel comfortable working. This matters for reasons of authenticity, equity, and distinctiveness offshore. As John Riley, head of MFAT’s Trade Policy Engagement Unit, told the conference: “I see more and more Māori in the ministry comfortable in their tikanga, and sharing it and empowering others to use it.”
This sits in contrast to the generally held view that diplomacy can be a staid, conservative profession, venerating tradition and precedent. Just as women had to fight for decades to be posted into our diplomatic missions overseas, there are still battles of inclusivity and diversity to be fought in 2018. Portia Allen, at 25 comfortably the youngest diplomat to speak at the conference, said: “I am a half Japanese, half English, Kiwi. I’m queer, and more specifically, I’m bisexual … I am also a professional, a colleague, a friend, a partner, a sibling and a daughter … Being able to be your whole and authentic self within the ministry is an essential ingredient for a happy, healthy and high performing ministry.”
At the conference, MFAT’s Chief Executive Brook Barrington spoke about how the MFAT is addressing the expectations of a new generation of New Zealand diplomats: “We are responding to the urgent call from a new generation for us to be kinder and gentler inside our own house while still being exact and exacting in our diplomacy.”
Where does New Zealand’s independent foreign policy come from?
Foreign Minister Peters outlined New Zealand’s independent foreign policy in his speech to the conference: “History has judged New Zealand kindly,” he said. “As a country we have taken actions, and tested relationships, based on our principles. The nuclear-free stance from the 1970s through to the 1980s is one such example … The sense of independence that New Zealand holds today will also guide our future foreign policy choices.”
He said: “Greater self-reliance, underpinned by the strength of our convictions and underwritten by the resources required to give power to our voice, is the path that this government has set. With greater self-reliance comes self-respect. Both will inform our independent voice when we choose to exercise it.”
The contention that New Zealand’s foreign policy is now driven more by an explicit consideration of national interest – and that we will make up our own minds on issues – is one that has been supported by all our major political parties for the past few decades.
But the conference explored the historical background to our contemporary independent foreign policy. Victoria University historian Rob Rabel noted that the Vietnam War was a turning point for New Zealand’s foreign policy posture. Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, reluctant about joining the war, was convinced to do so out of loyalty to Washington. But, during that war, the Labour Party started to argue that it should be possible to disagree on discrete policy issues with the United States within the context of our military alliance. This position was tested via the nuclear-free dispute in the 1980s; ultimately, New Zealand was not able to have both its nuclear-free policy and its military alliance with the United States – and it chose the former.
There were a number of voices at the conference defending the concept that New Zealand’s formal alliance relationships had been on balance beneficial to our country, and should not be viewed as contrary to an independent New Zealand foreign policy. Victoria University’s Rob Ayson said that while New Zealanders were often focused on points of difference with Australia, Canberra had in fact often been a facilitator of New Zealand interests. My overseas experience bears this out: Australian diplomats the world over are almost always prepared to lend us a hand: sharing information, ideas, and contacts.
One of my old bosses at MFAT, former secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Murdoch, made the case that New Zealand had benefited hugely from our alliance with the United States during the 1950s and 60s. Our main diplomatic goals for our US alliance at that time – including easing away from our reliance on the United Kingdom, shaping the decolonisation process happening in our region, and enhancing our maritime sovereignty – were all achieved in the 25 years following the end of World War Two.
How does New Zealand deal with the end of the golden weather?
The conference also focused on the range of challenges New Zealand currently faces, as the post-cold-war “golden weather” of a deepening global commitment to democracy, open markets and freedom of speech comes to an end. Brook Barrington described 2018 as having “its own particular geo-strategic tensions, weakening of the rules-based order, existential threat to the planet, and technological challenges to the legitimacy of the state”. In this world, Barrington argued, New Zealand diplomats would continue to need a combination of “the same qualities that have served this country and this Ministry well for 75 years and more: principle; pragmatism; and a phlegmatic professionalism”.
Foreign Minister Peters warned the conference against thinking the world of 2018 was unusual in presenting New Zealand with a challenging operating environment. He argued: “It is fashionable to always refer to the current era as being subject to levels of complexity and uncertainty that are unprecedented. But now-ism, the belief that everything that is happening to you is unique, can be a trap. While the pace of change today is unprecedented, the fundamental challenges faced by earlier eras were profound.”
The 75-year timeframe of the MFAT conference is helpful in underlining this point. The world of 1943 – with the prospect of Japanese invasion of the islands of Aotearoa very real, Europe a burning ruins, and Kiwis dying in large numbers on foreign battlefields – was far, far more hostile a strategic operating environment than what New Zealand diplomats face in 2018.
That is not an argument for complacency. There’s no doubt that New Zealand’s interests and values are being tested much more profoundly now than they were a decade ago. We are having to adapt to a world in which we cannot take for granted the idea that humanity will enjoy greater prosperity, security and freedom a generation from now. As we face this challenge of adaptation, New Zealand will need a new generation of diplomats with a good eye, a keen ear, and a strong voice.
Those future diplomats might usefully reflect on the virtue of modesty about New Zealand’s place in the world, and our role in influencing global events. All diplomats contribute to a body of work that started before us and will continue after us. As former MFAT Chief Executive Simon Murdoch told the conference: “The word ‘we’ is used a lot more than ‘I’ here. Diplomacy is the work of many hands over time.”
Michael Appleton is a Unit Manager in MFAT’s Pacific Regional Division. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent official New Zealand Government policy.