Politi­cians grab­bing diplo­matic posts


Tra­di­tion­ally, the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade has re­cruited the best and the bright­est of univer­sity grad­u­ates to its ranks.

Fair enough, too. Suc­cess­ful diplo­macy calls for a com­bi­na­tion of charm, dis­cre­tion, guile and tac­ti­cal savvy.

All the more rea­son for con­cern then that suc­ces­sive Labour and Na­tional gov­ern­ments have reg­u­larly filled the top two rungs on our diplo­matic lad­der – the high com­mis­sioner’s job in Lon­don, and the New Zealand am­bas­sador’s post in Wash­ing­ton – with for­mer politi­cians who have lit­tle or no for­mal back­ground in diplo­macy what­so­ever.

Last week, for in­stance, the Gov­ern­ment an­nounced that Tim Groser would be our new man in Wash­ing­ton, re­plac­ing an­other for­mer politi­cian, Mike Moore.

In a sim­i­lar vein, for­mer Cab­i­net Min­is­ters Sir Lock­wood Smith and Jonathan Hunt have re­cently filled the high com­mis­sioner’s role in Lon­don.

In our diplo­macy with our ma­jor al­lies, years of po­lit­i­cal ser­vice seem to out­weigh years of ex­pe­ri­ence on the diplo­matic cir­cuit.

Groser is a con­tro­ver­sial choice. A rep­u­ta­tion for ar­ro­gance pre­cedes him.

Dur­ing the re­cent Trans Pa­cific Part­ner­ship trade ne­go­ti­a­tions, the al­ready frosty re­la­tions be­tween Groser and his Ja­panese coun­ter­part, Akira Amari, were not helped by a gra­tu­itous snub on New Zealand’s part.

As the Ja­panese press re­ported with won­der­ment in early Oc­to­ber, Groser sud­denly sig­nalled that New Zealand would em­brace the Amer­i­can po­si­tion on phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal data – ap­par­ently in re­turn for Amer­i­can pres­sure on Ja­pan’s farm mar­kets, and on North Amer­i­can dairy pro­duc­ers.

A law­maker from the rul­ing [Ja­panese] Lib­eral Demo­cratic Party, on the spot to mon­i­tor the Trans Pa­cific Part­ner­ship min­is­te­rial ne­go­ti­a­tions, re­port­edly frowned in con­fu­sion at New Zealand’s sud­den switch, say­ing: ‘‘I’m afraid New Zealand will make a bar­gain on dairy trade with the US, and thrust im­ports on Ja­pan.’’

Things got worse. As the pres­ti­gious Nikkei Asian Re­view re­ported: ‘‘Groser watched a Rugby World Cup game on tele­vi­sion in a bar in At­lanta on Oc­to­ber 3 with Mal­colm Bai­ley, chair­man of the New Zealand Dairy Com­pa­nies As­so­ci­a­tion… This was the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive day that Groser watched the rugby tour­na­ment.’’

Was this airy de­tach­ment sup­posed to sig­nal that New Zealand would not yield on dairy trade? No one knew.

‘‘In short,’’ the Nikkei re­port con­cluded, ‘‘New Zealand tried to do the US a favour in ad­vance, in or­der to pursue a re­turn on dairy trade – while en­cour­ag­ing the US and Aus­tralia to set­tle the ques­tion of drugs.’’

All of which would have been a bril­liant gam­bit if it had suc­ceeded.

Un­for­tu­nately, it didn’t. All Groser achieved by his rug­by­watch­ing snub was that he se­ri­ously of­fended the Ja­panese – while win­ning al­most noth­ing sub­stan­tive from the Amer­i­cans on en­hanced dairy ac­cess, in re­turn for his uni­lat­eral con­ces­sion to them on medicines.

At a wider level, ma­jor diplo­matic posts should not be awarded as baubles handed out to politi­cians look­ing for a re­tire­ment niche.

The Wash­ing­ton em­bassy is the chan­nel for pre­sent­ing New Zealand’s case to its pow­er­ful ally, and it needs some­one will­ing and able to recog­nise and re­spond to the sig­nals be­ing sent by oth­ers.


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