New Zealand’s ‘man in the White House’ could become our man at the OECD, with Donald Trump nominating Chris Liddell for the top job. But his nationality won’t be the only factor as our Government decides whether to back his candidacy

Analysis: Kiwi businessman turned Donald Trump adviser Chris Liddell is in the running for the top job at one of the world’s most esteemed multilateral organisations – but he may struggle to get the backing of his country of birth.

Liddell, a dual US-NZ citizen, has been officially nominated by the United States as its first ever nominee to become secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, a grouping of 37 high-income nations set up to develop best practice for economic progress and world trade.

Liddell first joined the White House in 2017 as an “assistant to the president for strategic initiatives”, and is in a rare category of Trump appointees who have made it to the end of his first term without resigning or being fired.

That longevity has put him in the midst of some highly controversial decisions: according to a NBC News report (denied by the White House), Liddell was among 11 senior Trump advisers who took part in a “show-of-hands vote” on whether to separate immigrant children from their families as part of a broad crackdown.

Currently Trump’s deputy chief of staff for policy coordination, Liddell has also been involved in the country’s disastrous Covid-19 response through his membership of the White House Coronavirus Task Force chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.

But now he has set his sights higher – so what are his chances of ending atop the OECD, and will New Zealand actually swing in behind their prodigal son?

“This is a guy who knows business and how to get things done: the fact he’s on the international political scene gives him so much more to add to his already strong CV.”

US Ambassador Scott Brown is in no doubt about Liddell’s talents, describing him to Newsroom as “one of my trusted advisers and liaisons within the White House”.

“He’s literally 20 feet from the President’s office, he sees him every day…he does a great job representing not only our interests in the US around the world, but New Zealand’s [interests] indirectly.”

Liddell had told Brown of his interest in being considered for the OECD job in a conversation the pair had two years ago.

“[He] said ‘Listen, there’s a position when I’m done with my tour here that I’d like to be considered for, what are your thoughts?’ I said, ‘You’d be amazing’.”

The Kiwi’s strength came in the fact he was not a politician but someone who had worked as both a businessman and a philanthropist, Brown argued.

“This is a guy who knows business and how to get things done: the fact he’s on the international political scene gives him so much more to add to his already strong CV.”

US Ambassador to New Zealand Scott Brown says Chris Liddell is one of his most trusted liaisons at the White House. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

The nomination of Liddell pitches him into what is already a crowded field of candidates, including former EU trade commissioner and presumed frontrunner Cecilia Malmstrom, ex-Canadian finance minister Bill Morneau, Greek politician Anna Diamantopoulou, and Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid.

It is Australia’s candidate, Belgium-born finance minister Mathia Cormann, who may be the biggest threat to Liddell’s hopes of winning New Zealand’s support, given the trans-Tasman allegiances which would be expected to come into play for a race like this.

Brown jokingly played on the two countries’ history of sporting rivalry when he suggested Liddell would be a more appropriate choice than Cormann.

“I do remember a cricket game once where that was an Australia-NZ conflict and people weren’t too happy with the Aussies. [and] I’ve been to All Blacks games and they’re not really cheering for the Aussies, they’re cheering for the Kiwis.”

But New Zealand’s decision may be less about patriotism and more about politics, as it decides whether a Liddell-led OECD’s agenda would align with that of our Government.

The organisation has been leading a global initiative to ensure multinational companies pay their fair share of tax, but the US withdrew from talks in June and has threatened retaliatory tariffs against countries which unilaterally impose digital services taxes on the likes of Facebook.

The Labour Party has said it is committed to working with the OECD “to get an international agreement that will see a comprehensive regime for multilateral corporations to pay their fair share”, but is prepared to move on its own if agreement isn’t possible.

Brown said he did not want to speak for Liddell on the matter of tax reform, but believed he would “listen to all sides in a very thoughtful and ethical and moral way”.

From tearing down the world order to heading it?

The Trump administration’s broader approach to multilateral organisations could also give New Zealand pause for thought about supporting Liddell’s candidacy.

In July, the President formally began moves to withdraw the US from the World Health Organisation after earlier accusing it of being under China’s control.

While the country remains the largest financial contributor to the United Nations, Trump has repeatedly proposed significant funding cuts to UN agencies, while he has previously criticised NATO allies for failing to spend enough money on defence.

Brown said the US wasn’t opposed to all multilateral organisations, but wanted to ensure they functioned as well as they should.

“We pay them money and we want to get our money’s worth – there’s nothing wrong with that.”

He described Liddell as “a believer in the rules-based order [who] also believes organisations need to be held accountable and run economically…and within the framework of good practices to hold people accountable”.

There is a chance that his candidacy could be short-lived: the US election will take place less than a week after the close of nominations for the OECD role, with Democratic candidate Joe Biden currently favoured to defeat Trump at the polls.

Brown argued Liddell was respected on both sides of the aisle, and he has indeed won praise for his background work preparing for a presidential transition despite Trump’s claims of a “rigged” election process.

But his nomination is a live prospect for the time being, and our Government is not tipping its hand for now: a spokesman for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that as nominations for the role were yet to close, “the Government is yet to make a decision on which candidate it will be supporting”.

* This article has been updated to include information about Liddell’s presence at a White House meeting to discuss the separation of migrant children from their families.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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