Bloke or statesman: a choice with Easter overtones

When should the Prime Minister be a bloke? And when a statesman?

On the day of Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral John Key chose bloke over statesman to be with the New Zealand cricket team at the world cup final against Australia. Australia’s Tony Abbott chose the funeral.

Leave aside the jinx factor, at which in any case Steven Joyce is more practised, as in the America’s Cup and Northland by-election debacles. Sport does have a people-to-people dimension. (Again, leave aside Abbott’s adoption of his cricketers’ sledging in his standoff with Indonesia.)

But foreign affairs are still far more state-to-state than people-to-people.

And Singapore is still important: an ex-British front door for us into South-east Asia where trade opportunities are rising and China’s South China Sea push has rattled nerves.

Lee built a mostly benign autocracy and a skilful technocracy and made a poor island into a major entrepot and an influence in the region (though some now say its strategic analysis is too Singapore-centric).

Norman Kirk, bloke-and-statesman Prime Minister, studied Lee. Lee in turn liked New Zealand, holidaying privately here.

Kirk almost certainly would have chosen Lee’s funeral over cricket, statesman over bloke.

He would have valued strategic thinking amid today’s growing global disorder. Good news: the cabinet accepted Brook Barrington’s appointment to head the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). Barrington is the sort who will rebuild MFAT’s strategic analysis capability.

Barrington’s job is to front the challenge the Otago Foreign Policy School will pose in June: “New Zealand in the world”. The statesman-Prime Minister’s job is to understand the full breadth of that challenge and possible actions.

For both men there are more questions than answers as the army heads to Iraq and as information seeps out on the dragnetting of digital correspondence, including of Tim Groser’s competitors to head the World Trade Organisation.

Spying links into foreign affairs. That requires spies not to undermine the strategy.

But spying is shadowy, out of our reach. We are left with Key’s curt, bland assurances and former director Sir Bruce Ferguson’s analogy with net fishing: you throw back what the law bans you keeping.

Spies can become a law to themselves. Britain’s MI5 celebrated in its ranks four industrious spies for the Soviet Union while religiously blocking the now-renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm from academic posts for being a Communist party member, despite his dissidence from the party and eventual apostasy.

Modern spies have built a picture of foreign fighters who will return to kill us. Actually, few have returned in the past in Europe or the United States and very few want to kill. Most killers are stay-at-homes, as in Sydney. An Atlantic Monthly article on rising fear despite falling death risks quotes statistics showing an American is four times more likely to drown in a bathtub than die in a terrorist attack. (Next: bathtub laws?)

The real issue in Iraq is whom we are helping and why.

The war we are about to join is sectarian: Muslim v Muslim v Muslim. Shiite Iran is helping run the war against the Sunni Islamic State. That embarrasses Iran-phoblic United States though last week it initialled a deal with Iran to contain Iran’s nuclear ambition. Sunni Saudi Arabia deplores the Sunni Islamic State, backs Egypt’s crackdown on the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and leads a coalition backing Sunnis fighting Iran-backed Shiites in Yemen.

Confused? So are policymakers in Washington and elsewhere. The complexity is mind-boggling. And intervention in the war(s) is predicated on bolstering a so-called state or a potential state. “In many years working in the region, I have never seen such a distance between statements and fact,” the International Crisis Group’s Peter Harling told the New York Times.

It doesn’t help that the Islamic State is trying to recreate a seventh-century caliphate in line with fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran and its apocrypha.

The sad point is all Muslims believe in the same god. Take this further: Christians, Muslims and Jews share the same god. The difference is in the myriad add-ons. In the grand scheme Christian v Muslim v Jew is sectarian.

Moreover, festal occasions — such as Easter — have pagan roots, as Rod Blackhurst wrote in The Conversation last week: “There is nothing Christian about the Easter egg.” Easter had been celebrated as the coming of new grass after the northern winter.

As Christianity spread, Blackhurst wrote, “it took the pragmatic and compassionate approach of absorbing and adapting pagan rites, sites and institutions wherever they were not entirely inimical to the Christian spirit.”

So, to some extent, did Islam: “The sacred month of Ramadan was celebrated long before Muhammad.”

The deeper Easter message: we are all in this together. That, in effect, is the golden rule.

Blokes sometimes stray from that rule. A statesman can test strategy against it.