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.