The young diplomats who I’ve met over the years in Beijing, Geneva and New Dehli have been blessed with bright-eyed, attractive personalities. You’d be entirely grateful if one of them rocked up on your doorstep partnered to your child. And as the compendious, 564-page, multi-authored volume New Zealand’s Foreign Service: A History reveals, their excellence has been a constant feature since MFAT was founded. A paper on the complexities around the Vietnam War by the Kiwis reputedly somehow made it into President Lyndon Johnson’s hands. He wanted to know why he wasn’t getting briefings of that high quality from his own officials.

It’s true that for far too long MFAT was almost exclusively pale, stale and male (stenographers, ciphers and admin staff excluded). Just as in our wider working world, this has changed, with more and more women, Maori, and even more recently Pasifika and Asian Kiwis joining the ranks. Good. But the ministry was founded on the best of intentions, and has generally succeeded in recruiting “the best type of New Zealander”, which it aspired to employ. Its founding father, Alister McIntosh, sought to go for donnish professorial types, in order to attain a university staff common room feel. More generally, think Rhodes Scholar folk, of which MFAT has employed more than its fair share over the years.

In terms of actual global affairs, the book gives workman-like summaries on big issues and controversies over time and is dominated in this regard earlier on by decolonisation and throughout by the Cold War. (The  introduction, stating the book is the work of several writers overseen by a government committee, makes it sound like a Soviet Five-Year Plan.) We also see our country’s focus shift broadly from the UK to the US and then into the Asia Pacific.

On external rather than matters internal to the ministry, the book isn’t as pugnaciously polemical as I’d have enjoyed. But it’s nevertheless a significant book of record on a significant ministry. For a small, isolated nation dependent on exports, the story of our foreign service is an important one.

From a staff of six before World War Two (the same number as this book has authors) to closer to 2000 today, from a handful of international posts in the remnants of Empire to many scattered across the globe, from hanging onto Britain’s apron strings to a confident, independent ministry, this book details it all. Wellington types will all know someone.

When it was founded, the National Party criticised it as an extravagant waste of money. It’s reassuring that some things never change. It hasn’t just been the nasty Nats though; even Mfat’s own officials have marvelled at the kind of international forums officials would go to, describing them as “a spate of talk and literally no action or movement of any kind”. The UN was variously described as a “futility and a waste of time” and “pure bunkum” (what an excellent word that we should all use more often).

The other side to this “unwelcome luxury” line of argument is a reoccurring sense of precariousness, or at the least insecurity, up to the relatively recent past by MFAT’s senior mandarins. Save when Winston has been in charge, the ministry has found itself on “meagre staff resources” and struggling to do all required of it for the investment expended.

Norm Kirk clearly loved it and consequently officials loved him. With Muldoon, there was mutual, if veiled on the part of officials, contempt. That said, while a left/right distinction does come through here, I confess that when I was leader of the National Party it surprised me to learn that at any given time there were almost as many parliamentary colleagues who believed they would make an excellent Foreign or Trade Minister as I had parliamentary colleagues. I suspect Labour leaders also understand this phenomenon.

I hadn’t realised until reading the book that in earlier years heads of overseas missions were routinely politicians rather than ministry professionals rotated through. As with so many things, MFAT has had to fight for more of its people in these top roles, and now it’s majority public service appointed. MPs with ambition for high international office would do well to read this tome. Throughout its history, life in our country’s foreign service has been hard on partners, families and friends, with far fewer perks than is commonly believed.

I came away clearer on the integral roles that MFAT has played in the big issues that have face New Zealand. The ministry ameliorated as best could be done the effects of Britain ditching us for the EU, helping us find new markets over time, and has been there working on everything else from Antarctica, to war, to climate change and trade.

As the authors state, “While even today some members of the public may not be able to see beyond cocktail functions and the apparent waste of taxpayer money on frivolous activities, it is hard work behind the scenes in building relationships, navigating new and unforeseen issues and addressing the implications of overseas developments for New Zealand’s security and economic prosperity that is the essence of the ministry’s work.”

It seems clear we are in more need of this hard work now than we have been in many decades. As 99-year-old foreign policy supremo Henry Kissinger very recently said, we are now living in a totally new era. There is war in Europe. Germany is re-arming. Japan is musing about hosting American nuclear weapons and NATO is re-energising. The world economy has Chinese lockdowns, central banks aggressively tightening monetary settings after being loose as goose, stock markets plummeting, not to mention energy and food crises to contend with.

Even in our own neighbourhood we are no longer immune. China is muscling in on the Pacific and while gratifyingly our Pasifika friends and family are generally showing reassuring independence, there is no doubt that great power competition has arrived and isn’t going anywhere.

Our Foreign Minister’s lacklustre response has drawn much domestic criticism and not just from politicians. Ex-MFATers have also been in on the act and its hard to argue against the proposition that when viewed alongside Australia’s newly minted Minister, Penny Wong, amongst who’s first acts in government have been jetting around the islands, Nanaia Mahuta has been fairly idle. Wong’s also shown that such efforts in “soft power” can be effective, with turn arounds occurring in the positions of some of the nations after her “grip and grins”.

Yes, yes, yes, there has been the pandemic and so folk, including VIPs haven’t been travelling as much. But I don’t know this can be a complete defence, not for Ms Mahuta, and not for officials either. As the book shows time and again, often our diplomats have had to press on and in, despite of their political masters. I hope they are right now when it comes to the South Pacific.

Here’s to our best New Zealanders, their history, and their important work now and in our future.

New Zealand’s Foreign Service: A History, edited by Ian McGibbon (Massey University Press, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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