Key misses golden op­por­tu­nity


The stuff of di­plo­macy rou­tinely con­sists of con­scious sig­nals and sym­bolic ges­tures, but ev­ery now and then it also calls for good gut in­stincts about what is ap­pro­pri­ate.

The co­in­ci­dence last week that Prime Min­is­ter John Key and a trade del­e­ga­tion were tour­ing South Amer­ica just when one of its lead­ing po­lit­i­cal fig­ures died of can­cer could have been seen as a golden op­por­tu­nity. The funeral of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela of­fered a chance for Key to min­gle with al­most ev­ery po­lit­i­cal leader on the con­ti­nent in­stead of meet­ing only the lead­ers of Chile, Colom­bia and Brazil, who fea­tured on his orig­i­nal itin­er­ary.

In­stead, the prime min­is­ter and his ad­vis­ers chose to de­liver what could eas­ily be seen as a snub. Key stuck to his sched­ule and skipped the Chavez funeral.

To the Venezue­lans in par­tic­u­lar, the diplo­matic mes­sage is likely to have gone down badly.

Con­sider, say, if a New Zealand leader hap­pened to be in Africa when Nel­son Man­dela died.

Surely, there would be no hes­i­ta­tion then about break­ing the itin­er­ary and paying our respects. Not in this case, though. Though Chavez and Man­dela were quite dif­fer­ent sorts of politi­cians, they each have been the dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal fig­ures of their gen­er­a­tion, on their re­spec­tive con­ti­nents.

Chavez was not pop­u­lar in Washington. By point­edly not at­tend­ing the Chavez funeral, Key has risked send­ing a mes­sage to a con­ti­nent now emerg­ing from the shadow of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic dom­i­nance that for New Zealand at least, the opin­ion of Washington is still para­mount.

Stick­ing to the orig­i­nal sched­ule could hardly be jus­ti­fied in trade terms, ei­ther. Ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade web­site, Venezuela was New Zealand’s sec­ond largest dairy ex­port mar­ket in the world last year.

Even so, New Zealand does not have so much as an honorary con­sul in Venezuela, which im­ported $433 mil­lion of our goods last year. That amount far ex­ceeds the other coun­tries on Key’s Latin Amer­ica trip: Mex­ico $280m, Chile $77m, Brazil $81m and Colom­bia bring­ing up the rear, with a tiny $13m sliver of our an­nual trade.

There were other odd as­pects of the South Amer­i­can trip. In re­cent years, For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Mur­ray McCully has been in­tent on re­struc­tur­ing our diplo­matic corps in a con­tro­ver­sial (and so far, largely fu­tile) quest for sav­ings.

In the process, New Zealand has closed a cou­ple of its diplo­matic posts in Europe.

Last week, how­ever, Key an­nounced his de­sire to open a New Zealand em­bassy in South Amer­ica, and to lo­cate it in Bo­gota, Colom­bia – de­spite Colom­bia be­ing, on those cur­rent trade fig­ures, among the small­est of our mar­kets in South Amer­ica.

Robert Mul­doon once fa­mously de­clared that for us, di­plo­macy is trade. If so, and if we are se­ri­ous about fos­ter­ing trade with South Amer­ica, we need to ad­just to diplo­matic re­al­ity.

South Amer­ica no longer sees it­self as Washington’s back­yard.

Within the likes of the Tran­sPa­cific Part­ner­ship trade talks, New Zealand can­not af­ford to be seen as a vir­tual Amer­i­can sur­ro­gate. For all his fail­ings – real and al­leged – Chavez em­bod­ied that new sense of South Amer­i­can pride and in­de­pen­dence. Ar­guably, it wouldn’t have hurt ei­ther our trade ef­forts or our diplo­matic cred­i­bil­ity for our leader to have at­tended his funeral.

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