Analysis: New Zealander Christopher Liddell’s chances of winning the backing of the world’s 37 most powerful nations to lead the OECD are looking shaky.
Last week’s US Capitol riots – rightly called an attempted coup by many – come ahead of a critical week in which the 10 candidates for the role of OECD secretary-general begin being whittled down to six or seven, then later this month to just a handful.
Liddell, as vice chair of Trump’s transition team, has to manage an effective handover if he is to gain continued US backing for his nomination as OECD Secretary-General. His supporters believe he has the backing of 10 countries – but his home country is not among them.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Liddell agreed to Newsroom and NZ Herald requests for interviews, after last week’s riots. He turned down requests from Stuff and 1 News to comment publicly. He also approached conservative commentator Matthew Hooton, via a public relations consultant, to respond to Hooton’s criticism of him.
It’s unlikely his conversations with New Zealand media came from any expectation they might win over government and public opinion, given repeated New Zealand expressions of concern about the Trump Administration’s actions over the past four years.
Indeed, one informed Beehive source said the likelihood of the New Zealand Government backing him was nil, even before his boss incited the violent assault on the US Congress as it began a joint session to certify the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
“I don’t think he will be viewed as a plucky bright idealistic New Zealander any longer benefiting from Jacinda’s mana, but only as an expat Trump enabler.”
– Associate Professor Stephen Hoadley
More likely, his conversations with New Zealand media – and he spoke to Newsroom again today – are out of a sense of connection to this country. Liddell grew up in Matamata and attended Mt Albert Grammar School in Auckland, before forging a high-powered business career in New Zealand and then the US.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, no doubt Liddell feels the sting of New Zealand’s refusal to offer him any government or public backing in his OECD bid, when 10 other countries are backing him.
He may also be pained by the notion that much of his home country is disgusted with the actions of the administration he has served in for the past four years – from a president endorsing white supremacists in Charlottesville and seeking to overturn an election, to a negligent response to the pandemic that has seen 370,000 Americans killed.
Ask not why he didn’t resign last week, some say, but why he didn’t resign a year ago, or two years ago – or knowing what he knew about Donald Trump, why he took the job in the first place.
Is Liddell trying to whitewash his reputation?
I was one of several senior New Zealand journalists who approached Chris Liddell directly last week, seeking interviews about his position on the riots and the Trump response, and US media reports that he was considering resigning. All of us initiated contact independently – it’s our job as journalists to seek answers on matters of public importance.
“Yesterday was a terrible day for the country. With respect to the transition, it had been going reasonably well, and there was some real goodwill at an operational level between us, so it was also a significant setback. But we can still overcome the setback by continuing to work together.”
– Chris Liddell
It’s not the first time I’ve interviewed Liddell. I’ve asked him robust questions in the past about comparative Covid management, trade, and immigration, including the Trump Administration’s child separation policy.
He says he won’t speak publicly on most of these issues until after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ inauguration on January 20 – though he did say last week he was “horrified” at the events that threatened to derail Congress’ certification of the new President and Vice President.
I pressed him further on the matters on which he has refused to publicly comment. Some of his responses put him at odds with Trump.
“Yesterday was a terrible day for the country,” he told me, the day after the riots. “With respect to the transition, it had been going reasonably well, and there was some real goodwill at an operational level between us, so it was also a significant setback. But we can still overcome the setback by continuing to work together.”
There are policy matters too. Trump pulled the US out of the international Paris Agreement to address the climate crisis – but Liddell endorses Biden’s decision to reverse that.
“I’d welcome our return to the Paris Agreement as a signal of US commitment to multilateral solutions,” he says.
“The US focus on innovation and R&D to provide solutions to mitigating climate change is essential to solve the gap between current NDCs and the Paris aspiration of limiting temperature increases to below 1.5C. A very important part of the OECD’s role will be to support R&D policy internationally in generating solutions.”
On other matters, like China, he still backs President Trump. “A resurgent China is a growing threat to the world, including the Pacific, and it’s been important that the US has asserted itself against this threat,” he says.
“Had there been a vote, I would certainly have voted against child separation. I think it was a terrible policy.”
– Chris Liddell
I’ve asked him repeatedly about whether or not he agrees with Trump on his policies, his actions and his rhetoric, and I know I’m not the only journalist asking him those questions.
Jack Tame of 1 News did an excellent sitdown interview with him in the White House after the election; over 57 minutes they canvassed climate change, inequality, immigration and child separation, trade policy, Covid. As Liddell says now, “every policy elephant in the room was covered”.
Tame (like I did) asked Liddell about the child separation policy. “Had there been a vote, I would certainly have voted against child separation,” he replied. “I think it was a terrible policy.”
Last week, Liddell also asked a senior PR operative, Brian Sweeney of Sweeney Vesty, to put him in touch with NZ Herald conservative political commentator Matthew Hooton, who had been strongly critical of his role enabling Trump’s actions.
The two spoke, but Hooton was unswayed: “His PR agent had first tried to contact me at 7.08pm on Wednesday 6 January, Washington time – that is, before the Capitol had been fully cleared,” Hooton posted on Facebook. “I am surprised that talking to me and other New Zealand writers was a priority for Mr Liddell at that time.”
It seems likely that his approach to Hooton – along with the time he’s given to New Zealand journalists who have approached him for answers – indicates he’s not ready to burn his bridges with New Zealand. It’s a long way from Matamata to Washington DC – but Liddell clearly hopes to one day find a path back again.
Can Liddell’s transition work win over Biden?
As if it’s not enough to lose the support of his home country, with Trump’s election loss Liddell can no longer be confident of the continued backing of his adopted country, the United States. He would need to win over the very Democratic Party leadership that Trump has fought so hard against.
No doubt this has been an added incentive for Liddell to be seen in the US, and worldwide, to get the transition back on track. After the riots, Trump was indeed persuaded to issue a statement promising an “orderly transition”, and allowing Liddell to push ‘go’ on seeking the resignation of Trump’s political appointees.
There are three good reasons why Liddell should be highly motivated to deliver a smooth transition from the Trump to the Biden administration.
“Chris has done a highly professional job in an impossible environment at the White House … He has done so under very difficult circumstances including a President who, until yesterday, did not accept the outcome of the election.”
– David Marchick
The first should be a public duty, as operational head of Trump’s transition team, to help Biden to move seamlessly into the presidency. “I’m here for the next 11 days, because it’s the right thing to do, and I’m doing it out of public and professional duty,” he reiterates today.
The second, simple professionalism. This is the third transition team Liddell has worked on (not to mention the corporate takeovers) and he wrote a book on transitions. The Romney Readiness Project, available on Amazon for the trainspotters, traces the importance of well-planned presidential transitions.
The third reason will be, presumably, his personal future. Liddell has to run an effective transition if he is to gain continued US backing for his nomination as OECD Secretary-General.
“I am the United States nominee for the OECD – but that is not my focus at the moment.”
He says he’s keeping his transition role and his bid for the OECD separate, but as I reported last week, there is still a chance (perhaps a slim chance) that Biden may back him if he earns the trust of the incoming President’s transition team.
David Marchick, who runs the Center for Presidential Transition, a non-partisan thinktank, has worked with the Trump White House, the agencies and the Biden team.
“Chris has done a highly professional job in an impossible environment at the White House,” he tells me. “He has been working on the transition since early in 2020 and has been very focused on helping to deliver a smooth transition.
“He has done so under very difficult circumstances including a President who, until yesterday, did not accept the outcome of the election.”
“I appreciate that Chris Liddell is probably a very nice person and decent, but … the President has only belatedly given the green light to an orderly transition. That should have been done within about 24 hours of the election.”
– Professor Robert Patman
However, Associate Professor Stephen Hoadley, from the politics and international relations department at the University of Auckland, says he will be very surprised if Liddell is chosen for the OECD role.
“There are a number of worthy and capable European candidates for the OECD Secretary-General slot,” he says. “I don’t think he will be viewed as a plucky bright idealistic New Zealander any longer benefiting from Jacinda’s mana, but only as an expat Trump enabler.”
Hoadley says Liddell has commendable qualifications, and has shown commitment in hanging on in the Trump Administration’s dying days, while others bail out, to ensure a smooth transition. “But he will be tainted by association with the Trump Administration that has been hostile to cooperation with international institutions such as the OECD.”
At Otago University, Professor Robert Patman is even more forthright. The US foreign policy expert argues neither the Biden Administration nor the New Zealand Government should back Liddell for the OECD.
“I don’t think New Zealand should back him given he’s been an integral part of the Trump Administration which has been an adversary or an opponent of multilateral institutions, which New Zealand’s national interest depends on. For us, multilateral institutions – whether they be the WTO or the OECD – extend our national sovereignty by giving us a voice at the table.”
He suggests there are strong candidates who are far more committed to an international rules-based system, like Ulrik Knudsen from Denmark or Mathias Cormann from Australia. “It would be nice to have a New Zealander at the OECD, but he has worked very closely in an Administration that, when it had it chance in office, actually took the chance to undermine those institutions that New Zealand depends on.”
As for the Biden Administration, Patman says they are frustrated at how delayed the transition was. “I appreciate that Chris Liddell is probably a very nice person and decent, but he’s been constrained, obviously, by the circumstances in which he works. The President has only belatedly given the green light to an orderly transition. That should have been done within about 24 hours of the election.”
Setting aside the interests of the New Zealand Government and the Biden Administration, Patman says there is a wider concern. “In March 2019, we were on the receiving end of terrorism by a white supremacist. He was partly inspired by some of the ideas shared by the Trump supporters who stormed Capitol Hill a few days, waving Confederate flags and white supremacist symbols.
“So ideas do transmit internationally, and whoever is appointed Secretary-General of the OECD has to be absolutely committed to the rules-based system.”