Guerrilla Diplomacy in Aotearoa

After a pause to regroup and to deliver a graduate seminar on Science, Technology and International Policy at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies, the GD road show is rolling on.

First stop is the Land of the Long White Cloud, or Aotearoa, where I arrived 01 March.

For those who have not had the privilege of visiting New Zealand, this is a compact country of about four and a half million with amazing geographical diversity – a kind of palm at the end of the mind, if I may borrow from the title of an anthology of Wallace Stevens’ poetry. It is one of my favourite spots anywhere, a most extraordinary crucible of human enterprise and experience where, among many other achievements, they have done a better job than most in balancing the needs and interests of first peoples and later arrivals.

To offer a symbolic example of these continuing efforts, when you call the foreign ministry, you are greeted with the Maori kia ora, and MFAT business cards are written in English and Maori.

Some might consider this token. Yet while certainly not without problems, the aboriginal dimension of life here is generally more present, visible and culturally integrated than, for example, in Canada.

For the last few days I have been in Napier, a dream-like, exquisitely human-scale city situated on the shores of Hawkes Bay. It was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1931, and then rebuilt, largely in remarkably harmonious Art Deco style.

Today it stands as compelling testement to the virtues of architectural harmony, an impeccably preserved living monument which makes for a visual feast.

I once served in New Zealand, in 1993-94 as the Canadian Exchange Officer working for the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The exchange position was cut during Canada’s deficit-reducing Program Review exercise later in the nineties. Both countries have lost out on strategic opportunities for collaboration, and in my view have emerged diminished as a result of that myopic decision.

New Zealand is to Australia not unlike what Canada is to the USA – more modest and self-effacing; less assertive, back-slapping and boisterous. Canada and New Zealand have much in common in terms of history and culture. They could, and I think should be doing more together as naturally compatible diplomatic partners, especially in the Asia-Pacific.

For smaller or medium sized countries that enjoy the benefit of a positive international image and reputation and do not threaten anyone or carry the baggage of major powers, the public diplomacy approach to forging joint venture partnerships with the like-minded  should be second nature.

The fact that it is not speaks to the larger, and more universal problem of diplomatic dysfunction.

But back to the here and now… Last Tuesday in Wellington, I had an excellent exchange with a group of MFAT Directors, and met later with their new, and impressive CEO John Allen. He has read GD and is enthusiastic about its contents. As I have noted in my encounters with foreign ministry staff elsewhere, recognition of the need for radical reform in the way we conduct the business of governments at home and abroad appears to be near universal.

Preaching to the converted in foreign ministries is one thing; making the case for diplomacy as a cost-effective alternative to the use of armed force can be quite another.  So far, however, the response of those who have attended my presentations at NZIIA branches in Wellington, Palmerston North, Havelock North and Napier has been both engaged and supportive. Most agree that although the case can be made that diplomacy matters, as a non-violent formula for the management of international relations, it is seriously underperforming.

Why? Because diplomacy has not adapted well to the challenges of globalization, has been sidelined by the continuing militarization of international policy, and as a result suffers from grave problems of both image and substance.

That diagnosis resonates here.

But so do the arguments in favour engineering a more relevant foreign ministry, a transformed foreign service, and a more effective approach to the conduct of diplomatic business.

More on all of this in the coming weeks.