Letters of the Titans, Terence O’Brien

Unofficial Channels: Letters between Alister McIntosh and Foss Shanahan, George Laking and Frank Corner, 1946-1966
ed Ian McGibbon
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0 86473 365 8

A first reaction upon reading this compilation of selected letters between the four Titans who fashioned the professional and institutional basis of New Zealand foreign affairs – McIntosh, Laking, Corner, Shanahan – is that we shall not see their like again. This is for a prosaic reason as much as anything else. What permanent departmental head and his senior colleagues today would have the time and occasion to devote to such extensive and prolonged correspondence?

Such opportunities today in New Zealand diplomacy are much diminished by the pressures generated by modern technology, by the need for real-time reactions, the intrusive nature of media, the outside pressures from well-resourced special interest groups and business and accountability demanded by elected politicians. The time for reflexion, for ideas and for wider thinking is much reduced. More is the pity.

The letters derive from a more or less shared view about New Zealand that the four correspondents believed should define the infant Foreign Affairs Department. A country’s self-view is always of course liable to change. In the 30 years after the period covered in these letters, New Zealand has changed a great deal, although there are passages, for example relating to the shortcomings in defence planning, that carry a notably contemporary ring.

It is interesting how relatively little space is devoted by the four scribes to economic issues in international relations (one or two penetrating letters from George Laking are an exception). McIntosh, as permanent head, admits cheerfully to his lack of grounding in this area. Only towards the end of the 20 years covered by the book, do economic issues emerge as Britain readies itself to negotiate terms to join the EC. One witnesses, too, in some of the last letters, the opening salvoes of the turf battle with the Industries and Commerce Department about which agency should have prime carriage of New Zealand trade policy. That battle would divert energies for years to come.

These letters date, however, from the time before the commonplace that “all New Zealand’s foreign policy is trade”, coined by Prime Minister Muldoon, took hold and influenced resource allocation and career paths in Foreign Affairs. The oversimplification which that commonplace engendered became more readily apparent after the Cold War ended and when liberal orthodox economic doctrine reduced the role of governments in trade (but not in rules setting). Something a good deal more was required in foreign policy thinking as newer issues of the environment, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, human rights etc, preoccupied the international agenda. And the development by New Zealand of dedicated strategic foreign policy in Pacific East Asia, a region where ideas and traditions were and are quite different from its own, required a capacity for thinking afresh about place and identity in the world, of a kind that infuses these letters from earlier times.

The letters, as Tom Larkin suggests in a short perceptive Foreword, are about a time of creation. Some of the ideas are prescient, like Frank Corner’s suggestion of sending a frigate into the French nuclear bomb testing area in the Pacific nearly 10 years before the Kirk Government actually did so. Some read very quaintly, even myopically, such as McIntosh’s view about the inadvisability of sending Maori High Commissioners or Ambassadors to Asia. And the initial reluctance of McIntosh and Corner to countenance a shift of New Zealand foreign and defence policy towards Asia away from the traditional points of concentration fashioned by World War Two reads strangely after all that has happened. But it was 40 years ago!

Foreign relations in today’s world have become more democratised. It is a fair question just how the qualities and aptitudes displayed by these four scribes in their correspondence would have adapted to the very changed circumstances now. In their time, foreign relations remained an élite preoccupation, something that still haunts the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as it worries today about its image with businessmen, special interest groups, politicians, its utility in the eyes of the Treasury, and its responsiveness in the community, notably towards Maori.

Some of the most piquant passages concern the views of the letter writers about their political masters. In the formative years, there was mutual disregard between, on the one hand, politicians, including some Prime Ministers, who saw little intrinsic value in foreign affairs as such and regarded the embassies or high commissions as places to reward faithful party political service (but only in congenial capitals). This last is of course a disposition that endures but not to the same degree.

On the other hand, the attitudes of disdain reflected in some of these letters about politicians and their capabilities is evidence of fairly serious feelings of superiority. The professional prudence in the Foreign Affairs hierarchy surrounding the issue of Chinese diplomatic recognition, for example, produced unjustifiably derisive opinion in the correspondence about politicians who favoured recognition. These reflections immediately give rise to the question “Have things changed?” By and large one can probably respond with a gentle affirmative. The professionalism required of politicians and of diplomats now nourishes somewhat greater mutual recognition, grudging as it may sometimes be.

But it is also the wider knowledge and, indeed, expertise in the community at large which poses the greatest challenge to the foreign affairs practitioners today. They, in common with other departments of government, no longer enjoy any monopoly of information, or of analytical capacity in relation, particularly, to business or to single issue groups on key questions of modern international relations – the environment, the impacts of economic liberalisation, disarmament, human rights, resource exploitation, and so forth. That is an experience which the four scribes did not really have to confront.

Terence O’Brien is a commentator on international affairs.

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