Scholarly mavericks at External Affairs: Ken Ross discusses Alister McIntosh's approach to staffing his department with particular reference to Paddy Costello.

AuthorRoss, Ken

Wellington at present seems very much the intellectual centre of the country; but I'm not sure it is a place for solid quiet work. It is immensely stimulating, it was quite extraordinarily beautiful last week--soft, spring-like weather, the light on the hills and the harbour as blue and rich as in Italy. It is a place for cafes and cafe meetings. (Charles Brasch, 6 May 1947) (1)

McIntosh was so encouraging of an intellectual approach among his staff that the atmosphere was likened to 'that of a good university'. (Ian McGibbon, 2000) (2)

New Zealand's increasingly independent standing in world affairs in the immediate post-war years came about while the Cold War enveloped global politics. Peter Fraser, who had emerged from the Second World War with a handsome international reputation for his interventions at the leadership tables, led Wellington's charge. (3)

This article highlights Alister McIntosh, Fraser's principal diplomatic mandarin, as having been intent on the new Department of External Affairs emulating a good university--so Wellington would better know what was happening as the Cold War moved in. Crucial for New Zealand's mana to rise once again internationally is revitalising the 'good university' and for our diplomats to achieve better grades.

The 'good university' suffused through comments Simon Murdoch, the last of the foreign ministry's chief executives to breathe the McIntosh airs, made when he gave us a survivor's raft of that era. (4) What was still needed, Murdoch invoked in 2005, was 'the enduring tribal values of the organisation' for it was 'a profession that often finds itself working away in the fine-grain spaces between light and dark in terms of politics and economics and as they play upon international relations'. In Murdoch's initial years at the foreign ministry, the early and mid-1970s, he found an 'in-house climate of professional self-scrutiny that was 'distinguished by a certain wry (possibly even mordant) sense of humour about its work'. The ministry he joined 'seemed at times a wonderful collection of saints and sinners, of eccentricities and brilliances. It seemed to say that there is no mould out of which good diplomats get made.'

Diplomatic beginnings

In 1943 the Department of External Affairs opened for diplomacy. New Zealand was then deeply reliant on British diplomatic traffic that was leavened but weakly by Wellington's two daily newspapers' coverage of events beyond our shores. Change was soon coming: Peter Fraser had told Winston Churchill in 1942 that Wellington now affirmed 'we must be informed. We feel that we must have an eye, an ear and a voice wherever decisions affecting New Zealand are to be made'. (5) That mantra was foremost for McIntosh as he sought staff. The manner in which that independent spine to New Zealand's post-war international stance developed was driven primarily by Fraser, with McIntosh his main support act.

New Zealand's first three diplomatic posts--New Zealand House, London; the high commission, Canberra; and the legation in Washington--had no high priority mandate to report developments in their host countries. Not until the New Zealand legation in Moscow opened in 1944 was the first dedicated stream of New Zealand diplomatic dispatches generated--by Paddy Costello. This happened even though there had not been a declared high priority for such from the small legation: Costello, with his high-octane acuity, simply put pen to paper reckoning McIntosh should be interested in his insights.

McIntosh was. So, too, was J.V. Wilson, who, with Frank Corner and Tom Larkin, read over McIntosh's shoulders. Soon, newcomers such as Malcolm Templeton and Richard ('Dick') Collins were shouldering in as well. Costello's material was to become highly-valued currency for McIntosh to slot into the emerging Five Eyes community. Now, it would be a distinguished contribution to Costello's legacy for the foreign ministry to publish his collected dispatches from Moscow. Then, maybe, we will see Costello's reporting his discussions with George Kennan, his first counterpart at the United States embassy, who reached Moscow days after Costello did in July 1944. Their chat had to be top-of-the-world stuff. Costello would have been picking the brain of Kennan, who had done an earlier stint at the US embassy. In...

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