Letting someone else have your way: James Kember recalls advancing New Zealand interests in Africa and France.

AuthorKember, James

Invitations from two of the NZIIA's branches to share some comments on the work of an ambassador provided a welcome opportunity to speak as an observer and practitioner of foreign affairs over more than 40 years, rather than in any official capacity. Whatever the true provenance of the saying about 'living in interesting times', there is little denying that the changing geopolitical environment, not to mention certain changes of leadership and decisions about membership of political institutions, has made the lives of those working in international affairs a great deal more than 'interesting'.

If proof were needed, the fact the Nelson meeting took place a few days after the historic meeting of the US and North Korea leaders--with a second now having taken place--spoke volumes about the changing landscape in which New Zealand diplomats, like others, were operating.

Towards the middle of 2018, I was talking with a group of young African diplomats in Wellington on what was the tenth intake of a course established back in 2014 to provide English language training for those from French or Portuguese speaking countries on the continent. One of the students was curious to know more about how diplomats performed in their assignments and, in particular, how the work differed when one was assigned to a bilateral posting to a country as compared with what they might do when sent to the UN or some other international organisation.

The student was taking the first steps on her own career path as a Cameroonian diplomat; and there was some lively discussion about the differences between bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Not for the first time, it made me stop to think about whether we were sometimes more focused on doing our job than in explaining what it was we actually did. Fortunately, the Nelson and Wairarapa branches had welcomed recent visitors to talk about a number of topical issues New Zealand diplomats had addressed, including the recent Security Council experience, intrigue on the high seas, international trade and relations with Asia. All critically important.

Of course in diplomacy, while there is the constant need to adjust to change, there are also some constants. Looking after our citizens, negotiation of treaties and agreements, pushing national interests to a foreign government or to an international organisation are amongst the latter. But in terms of change, the role of an embassy as the purveyor of raw information has been overtaken in this age of immediate access to news: these days, more coin is expended on interpreting events already known to our government and explaining their likely impact or consequence.

Douglas Hurd, who was British foreign secretary in the early 1990s, when I was often accompanying our own foreign minister to meetings in London, some years ago suggested that diplomacy was being seen as 'unfashionable' in the world of knee-jerk reaction and the dogmatic soundbite on television. This was perhaps less a case of heralding the demise of an old profession as much as a caution around the need to stay relevant in the face of the changing world of information. And that, of course, was long before the days of 'fake news' --or rather when disinformation was so described!

Hard edge

There is a hard edge to diplomacy that is enduring, and it is encapsulated in the tide of this address: Daniele Vare, the Italian early 20th century diplomat, most famous for his 1930s China-based novel The Maker of Heavenly Trousers, described diplomacy as 'the art of letting someone else have your way. After all, little trumps national interest, and a foreign ministry's energy is fully geared towards its prosecution.

A recent example of this is how, since 2010, New Zealand lifted our game in Africa--and why. Early in the period of New Zealand's campaign for the recent term on the UN Security Council, the thin relationships with most countries on the continent were quickly identified as a significant weakness. Foreign Minister Murray McCully was keenly aware of this gap. And to quote one of his predecessors, Sir Don McKinnon, who had been in the same role at the time New Zealand was last on the council in the early 1990s, to win a seat on the council meant having to win Africa. The continent commanded 54 votes, more than a quarter of the total.

I had returned from Vietnam in 2009 to head the division in the ministry managing the campaign; and within two years my focus had turned entirely to Africa. It is worth recalling the excellent 2010 seminar on Africa run by the NZIIA in Wellington.' Apart from the...

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