Foreign affairs: a critical skill for a Prime Minister

Helen Clark and Don Brash have been abroad, Clark plying her foreign affairs trade, Brash the apprentice. Is he learning quickly and deeply enough?

Last year Brash personally inserted into National’s policy a line that the anti-nuclear law would not be changed without consulting the public. Labour was easily able to twist that into code for his wanting a change and subservience to the United States — and thereby got back in the election race.

Brash also said he would have joined George Bush’s Iraq invasion, even though the public mood in 2003 was opposed and it did not fit his history as a pacifist when young. Taking out-of-character positions is risky politics. Voters suss them.

The kind interpretation a senior National MP offers is that Brash would not have taken the Iraq position had he been leader at the time of the invasion but felt bound by Bill English’s position. A less kind interpretation is that he was genuflecting to his party’s hardliners and the Americans — that, being in unfamiliar territory, he “took advice”.

Three years leader, Brash still sounds uncertain on international affairs. That indicates he has not done nearly the depth and breadth of swot on it that his history as a student hellbent on being top says he is capable of.

By contrast, the complexities, nuances, twists, idealisms and realpolitik of international affairs have been Clark’s first love since her university days. As a budding politician she went to conferences. She travelled. She chaired Parliament’s foreign affairs select committee in the 1980s and was a major driver of the anti-nuclear policy.

As Prime Minister she has manoeuvred into a position that has enabled Washington to start thawing the security relationship which her anti-nuclear policy seriously damaged. She sent the SAS to Afghanistan, joined Operation Enduring Freedom and sent troops to Iraq when the United Nations mandated reconstruction.

She has recognised, both in her forward military policy and generally, that (with some exceptions) New Zealand is aligned with the United States in values, even if not formally allied militarily.

The prize has been a nod-and-wink of a place on the free trade negotiation list, even if, with the Democrats now in control of the Congress, actual negotiations are much in doubt. National is unlikely to have got there faster by joining the Iraq invasion without also changing the anti-nuclear law.

Clark is on good terms with John Howard. She works at it, despite their disagreements.

It has helped that she has rationalised the military structure and put a floor under spending. The once-sour Australian view at political, bureaucratic and academic levels has mellowed in recent years.

She has negotiating and mediating skills. Non-New Zealand participants at the South Pacific Forum last month say she drew the sting from the Solomons-Australia tension consummately.

She has developed the trade liberalisation and trade access agendas.

There have been oversights and under-emphases: Japan has felt neglected and she has overweighted the balance of her travel in favour of static Europe and at the expense of rising Asia. She has made blues, most notably in a backhanded criticism of Bush in 2003. And she has appointed a Foreign Minister who is good at charm and gets by on the briefs but, one highly accomplished senior diplomat in Wellington says, is below par.

But those caveats aside, Clark is accomplished — some knowledgeable observers say exceptional — at conduct of foreign policy. By all accounts she is well respected by foreign leaders for her knowledge and insights, much more respected than the tiny size of her country merits. She has authority.

Buttressing this is her sense of heritage, built around the arts, history and war efforts, including the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. National is not on this board.

Contrast Brash: he has presence but he doesn’t have the insights and instinct that assiduous study brings. Contrast Key, to whom foreign affairs is foreign: he is a very fast learner but he hasn’t started learning yet.

Fortunately, there is a first-class tutor at hand in the excellently-connected Tim Groser, though his recent experience is in trade. And John Hayes was the architect of the Bougainville intervention.

Does this matter? Few vote on international affairs, unless they become local, as Iraq did in the United States this month and the nuclear issue did here in 2005. Adeptness at foreign policy is not usually a top-of-mind voting influence.

But international affairs do matter — a lot. Globalisation, the internationalisation of our law, business and population and proliferating treaties intrude on our domestic economic, political, social and cultural life. Climate change depends on international action. Security matters are now prominent. Trade access is vital for our economic wellbeing.

So if Clark is in her last term, Brash and Key have no time to lose boning up. Economics is only part of the story.