Track 2: diplomacy by real people

Underneath the high diplomacy of prime ministers and presidents and the detailed diplomacy of the professionals lies “track 2”. It is a growing dimension of our outreach.

Track 2 is high-level people-to-people diplomacy: academics, business leaders, heads of institutions ranging from culture to economics, plus usually a media figure or two.

People-to-people contact is constant: sports, tourism, business, exchange students, aid volunteers, conferences. That generally works well for this country because New Zealanders are mostly open and friendly but it is haphazard, serendipitous and irregular.

Track 2 adds another dimension, still in essence outside the government. A minister or two and senior officials may be involved, but as participants, not masters. It creates a forum where issues that matter to two or more countries can be talked about relatively freely and without the constraint of rigid national interest governments must always serve. Ministers can and do speak more bluntly.

Track 2’s other main value is to generate a constituency in each country that thinks about bilateral issues. The constituencies also get to know each other.

An example is the 13-year-old Council for Security Cooperation the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) which brings together academics, specialists and officials in their private capacities from countries around the Pacific rim to discuss security and political issues within and among member countries and develop policy recommendations for governments.

Another is Australia’s long-running annual dialogue with the United States. The venue alternates between the two countries.

This was the model for the Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum, set up in 2004. This year, long overdue, a United States-New Zealand Partnership Forum had its first meeting in Washington.

To help get the Americans to take notice, former Prime Ministers Jim Bolger and Mike Moore led the New Zealand delegation. Defence and Trade Minister Phil Goff turned up. The American team fielded some high-powered figures, including American Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue and Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill.

No wonders were worked. But some bogeys were confronted (notably the anti-nuclear standoff) and some ghosts were laid. That allowed the focus to be principally on common interests. The result was a small step towards a more positive country-to-country relationship and a little more weight added in Washington to New Zealand’s bid for a free trade agreement.

One senior bureaucrat cautions, with a bureaucrat’s typical facility for neologisms, that “one swallow does not make a summer”. But that does not negate the fact that there was a swallow. The more swallows the forum can hatch at future meetings, the more likely summer is to come.

It certainly can’t do any harm. And, because participants pay their own way and there is no large secretariat, it is cheap. The real cost for most participants is their time.

The same goes for the Australia-New Zealand forum. The first one was edgy. The defence elephant, which has generated a lot of friction over the years, lumbered around the room, every now and then snorting. There were also some gaping holes in Australian knowledge of New Zealand’s economy and the single economic market (SEM) process.

But by the third one in May this year the defence elephant had departed and SEM was well understood. There is now a core of regular participants who know and by and large like each other — and consequently know more about the other country. While some want more ambitious objectives, there is also a broad belief that the process is worthwhile.

And the forum provides for New Zealand a core of influential people in Australia who understand New Zealand and can, if needed, put in an accurate, if not necessarily a good, word. Had the forum been running in the 1990s Prime Minister Paul Keating might not have felt so free to abrogate the proposed single air market agreement by fax. Its presence will be an additional factor keeping the next Prime Minister after John Howard focused on the strategic importance of New Zealand to Australia.

Moreover, the appointment as Australian chair of James Strong, former chief executive of DB and Qantas, has sharpened the Australian focus and will put more weight into the Australian end of the working groups producing recommendations to advance aspects of SEM.

It sounds woolly. Most diplomacy is. The only concrete result so far is the fast-tracking of New Zealand passport holders through the Australian channel at airports.

But diplomacy has its value, even on track 2 — not least, we are likely to find, in helping mend long-broken fences in Washington.