The price of diplomacy is worth paying

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 18 May 2018

Government spending decisions can be popular or unpopular; they can be justified and unjustified. We all like to criticise the government for unjustified spending to increase its popularity.

Conversely, we should then also be prepared to defend government’s unpopular spending decisions where we believe them to be justified.

The boost to New Zealand’s diplomatic capacity is just such a decision.

winstonForeign Minister Winston Peters would not have expected the extra $190 million for Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) over the next four years to gain him many friends.

On talkback radio, people questioned how such a step could be reconciled with the name of his party New Zealand First. Newspaper commentators scolded Peters for his “foreign affairs extravagance.”

Given such hostility to better resourcing New Zealand’s foreign affairs capacity, it’s worth getting the proportions right. As it stands, New Zealand diplomacy runs on a shoestring of a budget when compared with most of our peers.

MFAT has 248 staff posted offshore spread over 58 posts. It is an average of just over four staff for each of New Zealand’s embassies, consulates or high commissions.

So that would be an ambassador, a deputy head of mission and two first secretaries – hardly an indication of overstaffing. And since some of New Zealand’s posts are larger, others have to do with even fewer staff, maybe just the ambassador and a deputy.

Just for comparison, the average diplomatic staffing in other countries’ missions are six (Netherlands), nine (Australia) or even 13 (Canada) fulltime equivalents.

The 58 posts in themselves also indicate constrained resources. In a world of nearly 200 countries, small nations such as New Zealand would not aim to be present everywhere. But having just around a quarter of countries covered (some posts are consulates where there is also an embassy) is unambitious.

Other nations of comparable size are better connected diplomatically. According to the Lowy Institute’s Global Diplomacy Index, Ireland has 80 posts, Denmark 93 and Norway 100.

Admittedly, all three countries are European. But should that not be an argument for them having fewer posts than New Zealand?

Overcoming our geographic isolation should be a reason enough to aim for good government-to-government links. Our government officials cannot just hop on a short-haul flight to liaise with other governments as Europeans can do. We need a physical presence in these locations if we want to maintain and develop our links. This is especially important in exploring trade opportunities.

There is an additional problem within New Zealand’s diplomatic service – and it is one which Mr Peters spoke about immediately after once again becoming foreign minister. When it became public late last year that just under half of all New Zealand diplomats had less than five years’ experience, Mr Peters acknowledged this as a problem.

At the time, Mr Peters promised MFat not only more resources. He also announced that it would “encourage people with talent in a highly specialised field to help their country overseas and back home in New Zealand.” When he later chose former Fonterra top manager Philip Turner as New Zealand’s new ambassador to Korea, the public got a sense of what he meant.

Mr Turner is a good example of how to add to the quality of our diplomatic service. A former diplomat, he then worked as head of Fonterra’s China operations and later head of global stakeholder affairs for the dairy cooperative. Someone like him would obviously bring a practical trade expertise to diplomacy that few career diplomats may have.

Such appointments do not come cheap, and neither should they. If we want to ensure New Zealand is appropriately represented abroad, we must be prepared to pay for that.

What Mr Peters announced last week may have sounded grand. But we are just talking about an additional 50 foreign policy positions and the reopening of the embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. This should only be the beginning of strengthening New Zealand’s diplomatic service.

If we do not up our diplomatic game, we will leave it to other nations to build their influence. And they will do so also in places that we would consider our own backyard.

This is where Mr Peters’ other announcement regarding New Zealand’s official development assistance comes in. It is linked to the Pacific region as part of the government’s so-called Pacific reset. But most obviously, it is a strategy of balancing increased Chinese activity in our neighbourhood.

Now one may be critical of development aid in general – and this columnist is. There are just too many examples of misguided and counterproductive aid. But at least it is easy to understand the strategic intention behind this initiative. It is less about some Pacific island nations and more about China.

So despite all criticism of the funding boosts announced by Mr Peters, he deserves credit for pushing New Zealand foreign affairs in the right direction. A better connected New Zealand will be better placed for spotting opportunities, not least for promoting trade and attracting investment.

Such a diplomatic push should be accommodated by openness to migration and foreign investment at home.

But that is a different matter. Or at least it seems to be a different matter for some in the foreign minister’s own party.