Small people can make a small country big

Mike Moore, Don McKinnon, Helen Clark: top multilateral jobs after top domestic jobs. What has New Zealand got?

First, connections and track record.

As trade minister in 1984-90 Moore was a great mixer, a vigorous proponent of free trade despite his early socialism and a perennial generator of a wide variety (and quality) of ideas — plus books to convey them. McKinnon resolved the Bougainville standoff with Papua-New Guinea.

Clark, who yesterday got the biggest job of the three, won from major-country leaders a respect far greater than 4.3 million people can command and more than any previous Prime Minister — including Peter Fraser, who lived in a simpler world.

Her intellect and supple understanding of international relations, her promotion of free trade, climate change and reconciliation of conflicting religious faiths and her demeanour earned her endorsement from a range of international heavyweights. Her insistence that without United Nations backing Iraq must not be invaded underlined her multilateralist credentials.

Second, New Zealand exports people.

In part, that is because New Zealand is very small. If you want to get to the top, the top isn’t here. It is in one of the world’s great cities or universities or corporate headquarters. Even Peter Jackson must court Hollywood.

That often means exile. For example, with a tiny few exceptions, New Zealand companies cannot offer a career that includes ladder-climbing time abroad. Aspirants must join foreign companies. If they come back, it is for the children or to retire.

So you find New Zealanders round the world in high positions in corporations and multilateral organisations. Until Clark, political scientist Ramesh Thakur was the highest-ranked New Zealander at the United Nations, as senior vice-rector of the United Nations University with assistant director-general status, one notch down from Clark’s Under-Secretary-General spot at No 3.

Moore and Clark could go no higher here after Prime Minister. A top multilateral job was the only higher option. And it is a higher option — for a George Bush or a Tony Blair anywhere else is down.

Third, New Zealand often undervalues its most able. Moore was — is — much more highly regarded offshore than onshore. The reaction of many to Clark’s going will be a mean-spirited good-riddance: such people match their country’s smallness with a sad smallness of mind.

That smallness has followed Clark in foreign affairs. Murray McCully’s retreat to a narrow frame — exhibited in his approach to aid, which included an initial order to NZ Aid officials not even to attend last week’s British-backed conference on the United Nations millennium development goals and, when he relented, a ban on their speaking — underlines that he was John Key’s most inapt appointment (offset only, so far, by his inspired choice of former Deputy Prime Minister Jim McLay as ambassador to the United Nations).

What does Clark leave behind?

She leaves a by-election when she leaves Parliament and the result might embarrass her party, given National’s soaring popular support. And, Damien O’Connor’s much-needed conservatism apart, those next on the list, when Michael Cullen goes, are unwanted.

But, more important, she leaves her party with a strong membership and a cohort of younger, smart, MPs who will in time remake the party in a more flexible and more modern mould. Labour is united, which is unusual when a dominant leader goes, as the fractious Australian Liberals are proving — though a “so-far” must be added because if Phil Goff doesn’t get traction with voters by early 2011 there may be a push for a next-generation leader.

From all accounts, Clark has contributed vigorously and constructively to caucus discussions since stepping down but has done that in private and has punctiliously done nothing that detracts from Goff’s leadership. Had she not won an international job, it was not unimaginable that she could have been foreign minister in a future government.

And her legacy? Clark leaves behind a hard-to-match international relations record, summed up in the China free trade agreement and the repair of the United States rift.

But at home her legacy is mixed. She reunited the country after the 1980s-90s reforms. But she mistook a debt-fuelled binge for a structural shift in the economy when actually it was marking time. Consequently, she mistook the budget surpluses as structural when they, too, were, in effect, borrowed. So she spent too much and now the bill is in.

How will she go in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) job? It requires exhortation, consensus-building diplomacy and administrative toughness. She has never been great at the first. She will do the second consummately. The third badly needs a dose of her steely admonition.

And for us? This once-shy farm girl will be New Zealand in New York and the 166 countries where the UNDP operates. Big people can make a small country big.