Centrefold, waterboarding advocate, an inappropriate choice – Scott Brown has been labelled many things in New Zealand, but what is he likely to do as the United States’ man in Wellington?
Scott Brown didn’t receive the warmest welcome when news broke of his nomination as the United States’ next ambassador to New Zealand.
Media here largely focused on his former title as “America’s Sexiest Man” (accompanied by a nude Cosmopolitan centrefold), his support for waterboarding as a US senator, and his involvement in a sexual harassment lawsuit.
However, Brown has received the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s approval to take up the role, after receiving the backing of former Democratic opponents and largely coasting through the first stage of the confirmation process.
So why has Brown been chosen for the position, and what approach could he bring during his time in Wellington?
After spending 12 years in Massachusetts state politics, in 2010 Brown became the first Republican to represent the state in the US Senate for 38 years.
However, he was turfed out two years later and failed in a subsequent attempt to rejoin the Senate representing neighbouring New Hampshire.
The 57-year-old spent 35 years in the US Army National Guard, retiring in 2014 with the rank of colonel.
During his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate’s foreign relations committee last week, he described New Zealand as “unwavering friend of the United States”.
“That long and remarkable history has had its challenges, but hard work and strong communication efforts have made our ties even stronger,” he said.
NZ ‘on the radar’ in US
Stephen Hoadley, an associate professor of politics and international relations at Auckland University, says there are both positives and negatives to Brown’s swift progress.
“Good is that Scott Brown looks like one of the first ambassadors that’s going to be confirmed and go to his or her post, so that means that New Zealand is on the radar.
“The not so good part is, as some commentators have said, he’s a fairly lightweight sort of person.”
Hoadley says Brown did not appear to have distinguished himself during his time in the Senate, while he had “a bit of media baggage” from statements he had made in the past.
“He has some strong views about waterboarding, about Muslims, and about other things that we would ask some questions from the New Zealand perspective.”
However, his waterboarding comments had been somewhat overhyped, given they were made some time ago during a different climate.
“The waterboarding issue is really behind the United States now – everybody recognises it as torture, Scott Brown would be a very odd individual if he single-handedly advocated it now from such a great distance as New Zealand when most people have said it’s ineffective and it’s illegal and therefore let’s not do that anymore.”
Career diplomats few and far between
Hoadley says Brown’s nomination as a political appointee is not unusual, given only a third of the 20 past ambassadors to come to New Zealand were professional diplomats from the State Department.
“Another third have been people from the political world, and I think Scott Brown would qualify there, and another third have been people from the commercial world: financiers, a restaurateur, a property developer, a lobbyist, an international arbitrator.”
Brown is “pretty much ahead of the wave” having moved through his confirmation hearing, with the Trump administration struggling to fill approximately 250 posts for ambassadors or senior diplomats around the world – a fact which he attributed to its lack of organisation and experience.
“A lot of people [have been] brought in from the private sector or the military, neither of which is directly experienced in the kind of subtle, political people-to-people activity that characterises a US presidential administration.
“Consequently they have simply not been able to assemble lists of nominees very promptly and not put them expeditiously to the Senate for approval.”
The speed of Brown’s confirmation process could allow current charge d’affaires Candy Green, leading the US Embassy at present, to move onto her next posting which Hoadley believes is “imminent”.
Focus on China
Hoadley says the former senator’s experience in the National Guard and public comments to date mean he could encourage New Zealand to strengthen its military ties with the United States – particularly on the testy issue of the South China Sea.
“His statements during the confirmation hearing indicate he is very much onside with New Zealand, that he’s very sceptical about what China is claiming in the South China Sea indicates that he will be fairly robust on those issues.
“He is a Republican, he is robust in his views as many Republicans are about the strength of the military, about the need for counterterrorism, be firm on moral issues, and I think we can expect that he will uphold them.”
However, Hoadley says he is encouraged by Brown’s comments in support of New Zealand’s “fiercely independent” foreign policy, and that his job would be to listen and learn while in Wellington.
“That all sounded to me like was going to come down and learn from his staff…and pick up gradually and fit in with the New Zealand way of discourse, of contacting key people, getting onside and establishing trust and relationships that are so important for an ambassador.”
Adjusting to NZ’s ‘quiet diplomacy’
One area which Brown will have to adjust to is what Hoadley describes as New Zealand’s “quiet diplomacy”.
During his Senate hearing, Brown characterised the country’s approach to the South China Sea as saying: “Excuse me China, by the way, the fact that you’re building islands and militarising them and changing the law of the air and the law of the sea and international law that has been in place forever – we don’t like that.”
“In fact,” Hoadley says, “New Zealand has been very circumspect about confronting China by name – it has said, ‘We uphold international law, the law of the sea is important to us’ and that’s indirect criticism but it’s always indirect.
“I think Scott Brown will have to learn the New Zealand idiom – this is a low-key country, we’re not a fierce and prickly fighter, we are more of a diplomatic country.”
However, he says that slip-up should not stop Kiwis from taking his time in the country seriously.
“We should listen and give him the benefit of the doubt, rather than focus on centrefolds and court cases and his more extreme throwaway comments…a serious ambassador will sit down and moderate the vocabulary and become a little more analytical, and seek advice in all different quarters.
“He may start off from a base that is very foreign to New Zealand, but if he learns quickly and adapts quickly, well we’ll give him credit for that and give him the benefit of the doubt.”
For his part, Brown has taken the initial New Zealand reaction to his nomination in reasonable spirit, telling Newsroom: “I noted the initial accounts. Pretty humorous.
“They did not mention my 35 years in military retiring as a Colonel, 30 years of marriage, 30 years of public service and being a bipartisan problem solver.”
Brown says the New Zealand position was his top choice, and he hopes to receive a “fair go” from the public and the media.