Published daily by the Lowy Institute

NZ-US relations and Murray McCully’s foreign policy legacy

McCully seemed to understand how far the US relationship could be taken without serious questions being raised about New Zealand’s foreign policy independence.

Photo: Flickr/NZ National Party
Photo: Flickr/NZ National Party
Published 15 May 2017 

It didn’t take long for the post-McCully era in New Zealand foreign policy to have an effect. Last week, just a couple of days into his new portfolio, Gerry Brownlee branded as ‘premature’ the UN Security Council Resolution on Israeli settlements that New Zealand had sponsored in December.

That revision seemed to bring Wellington’s position closer to Canberra’s just as Brownlee travelled across the Tasman to have his first foreign ministers meeting with Julie Bishop. It would also have reduced some of the strains in New Zealand-Israel relations. But Brownlee’s initiative left his boss in a difficult spot. Rather than accommodating an obvious refutation of one of McCully’s signature moments, Prime Minister Bill English doubled down on New Zealand’s support for the resolution, suggesting that one of his most senior ministers was still learning the ropes.

However annoyed Bill English may have been on this occasion, Brownlee knows that his prime minister relies on him. Mr English seems less assured than his popular predecessor about New Zealand’s global interactions. This indicates quite a contrast with McCully’s experience. Yet even though John Key was very comfortable on the world stage, for more than eight years his politically skillful foreign minister was allowed considerable scope. Within those boundaries McCully exerted real influence on New Zealand’s foreign policy and the machinery that discharges it. This leaves a legacy that will have lasting effects.

McCully clearly views New Zealand’s successful UN Security Council campaign as the high point of his tenure. That's understandable. He made it clear that getting a seat on the Council was the first work priority for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). On many occasions he put his own considerable energies behind that wheel. This involved a conscious decision to make the most of New Zealand’s awareness of small state concerns, including in the South Pacific. While some may question McCully’s record on the latter, one particular piece of pragmatism (shared with Australia) is especially noteworthy. This was the welcome back message given to a still less-than-perfectly democratic Fiji. Without eating that bit of humble pie after years of sanctions, Wellington’s engagement in the nearer region would have remained incomplete in a very obvious way.

But for scholars of New Zealand’s diplomacy (of which there are very few) the most significant achievement in the last decade may turn out to be the improvement in relations with the United States. McCully himself oversaw one of the most symbolic moments in this evolving partnership: the Wellington Declaration signed by Hillary Clinton during her visit to New Zealand in 2010.

This accelerating security cooperation with the US (which had begun to take shape during the later years of Helen Clark’s term as prime minister) was achieved with hardly a bump in New Zealand’s expanding relationship with China. This was no small achievement and McCully seemed to understand how far the US relationship could be taken without really serious questions being raised about New Zealand’s foreign policy independence. In this balancing act he appeared to enjoy an effective working partnership with Key in managing New Zealand’s relations with the two major powers.

Unlike his foreign minister, John Key often appeared relaxed when expressing his views on foreign policy, helped by his ability to defuse potentially challenging issues with his trademark sense of humour. The more taciturn McCully often seemed reluctant to be drawn on matters if they carried a hint of strategic sensitivity. And if a future postgraduate student decides to compare his speechmaking record with Julie Bishop’s, that student would quickly discover a strong quantitative asymmetry in Australia’s favour.

McCully’s reluctance to comment on important issues coincided with rising competition in the Asia-Pacific region that made it even more imperative for New Zealand’s voice to be heard. These issues included the South China Sea where Beijing was building up a campaign of pressure against other claimants. The representatives of some of New Zealand’s leading international partners sometimes were left floundering as they searched for signs of Wellington’s public position.

This began to change in the form of a slowly evolving double act between McCully as foreign minister and Brownlee, who took over the Defence portfolio in 2014. The strength of their approach was to express concerns in New Zealand’s own diplomatic language, and to do so consistently. But while McCully had become more willing to go on the public record on such an important regional issue, this did not mean that New Zealand’s diplomats could be more relaxed about making contributions. Unless a very specific stamp of approval had come from McCully’s office, it was better to stay quiet.

The stricture was even more serious behind the scenes. McCully’s initial years in the portfolio included an attempt to revamp MFAT. At best the results of these efforts can be described as mixed. Staff posted abroad could easily find themselves marooned with few positions to come back to, and many found safe havens in other agencies which depleted MFAT’s core of experienced officials. Senior diplomats were often given an additional incentive to leave courtesy of McCully’s habit of reaching down into the Ministry and making his own posting decisions.

That MFAT was able to deliver a successful UNSC campaign, and that New Zealand went on to have an active two years on the Council, is a sign of that organisation’s resilience under real pressure. The improvement in MFAT’s morale that has been noticeable for some time will not be dented by Mr Brownlee’s ban on the acronyms that officials love to throw around, something he also ordered at Defence. But there is still a fair bit of recovering to do.

If he decides to produce an autobiography, Mr McCully will probably avoid any of the more troubling details that accompanied his time in office. After all, he had a real knack for deflecting scandals that would have kneecapped less crafty ministers. When problems began to stick there was always an organisation there to absorb the blame. Earlier this year, for example, when the government was flatfooted by the Trump Administration on visas for dual citizens, McCully swiftly directed the responsibility in MFAT’s direction - even though by then he had been in the job for more than eight years. The second of May 2017, McCully’s last day as Minister, might well have been a good time to be selling champagne in Wellington.

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