The dangers of absolutism, John Larkindale

Balancing Acts: Reflections of a New Zealand Diplomat
Gerald McGhie
Dunmore, $35.00
ISBN 978927212318

Friends and relations often suggest to diplomats following their retirement that they should write a book about their experiences. Not so, in my view; the world has little to gain from the reminiscences of run-of-the-mill former officials, no matter how personally interesting, quirky or even challenging their lives may have been. There are, of course, exceptions, especially in cases where the author was substantively involved in critical diplomatic events of the day. Into this category, I place memoirs such as Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation, Anatoly Dobrynin’s In Confidence and, in a New Zealand context, Gerald Hensley’s Final Approaches.

Gerald McGhie’s book does not quite fall into this category, but he nevertheless has much of value to say, including his immediate experiences in Moscow as New Zealand ambassador at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union and participating in the campaign undertaken by the Labour government in the late 1980s to ensure the success of the Commonwealth Games in Auckland in 1990. It is not only the description of events as they unfold that is of interest, but also McGhie’s assessment of the individuals with whom he was involved and who played important roles in developments.

Beyond these specific and important events, McGhie also traverses elements of his career, in the main part focusing on his postings overseas. Overall, they paint a good picture of the life of a diplomat from a small country like New Zealand, where, by virtue of the small size of our diplomatic missions overseas, all staff, both junior and more experienced, must turn their hands to a variety of tasks, and they must cope with whatever the situation demands. More often than not, this needs to be done with only very limited recourse to colleagues or immediate support. As comes through time and time again in the book, of all the virtues required of a diplomat, common sense and sound judgment are the most important.

But McGhie does not limit himself in the book merely to the description of events. As the subtitle of the book tells us, he also reflects more broadly on what lies behind developments in foreign affairs. Some common themes emerge: the emergence of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fragmented and frequently corrupt political system in Papua New Guinea, the civil tensions in the Solomon Islands and the coups in Fiji, are all consequences of the introduction of political and socio-economic systems with which the vast bulk of the countries’ populations were unfamiliar and for which they were not properly prepared. The contrast with Samoa, where, as McGhie notes, the local people were determined to make the new system of governance work, but where that system took into account previously existing indigenous structures, is important.

McGhie also reminds us of the dangers of absolutism in thinking and of the risks of transferring our belief frameworks onto different societies and cultures. In the area of human rights, for example, he notes the strong focus that New Zealand (and, for that matter, other “Western” countries) have on the rights of the individual. He suggests that in societies such as those in the Pacific other values need also to be taken into account. I would agree; I have long been of the view that, in societies such as Tokelau, communal rights are also vitally important. And, more practically, McGhie stresses the importance of New Zealand decision-makers having direct access to information that is filtered through a New Zealand lens; we have our own interests, our own values and our own relationships, and these need to be brought to bear in taking decisions on actions to be taken.

Actions to be taken are rarely absolutely clear-cut, and this is the more so for a country like New Zealand that only rarely has the ability to have significant influence on international events. McGhie reminds us of the constant balance that must be struck among immediate national interest, broader moral principles, and other international and regional priorities in deciding on what action to take. He illustrates very well some of the complexities of diplomacy, not least through his descriptions of how he had to operate in the very different environments in which he found himself during his career. What comes through loud and clear, however, is the overwhelming need for a well-resourced and ably-staffed foreign service. American Secretary of Defence Jim Mathis’s comment in 2013 that “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition” comes to mind in this context.

In some ways, it is perhaps regrettable that this final “reflections” part of the book is not more comprehensive, as it puts forward a number of propositions well worth more detailed consideration and debate. Not all will agree with all of McGhie’s propositions, but this makes them all the more useful. It is, however, understandable that, because the central focus of his book lies elsewhere, this section is more a pointer towards significant questions than providing answers to them.

John Larkindale is a former deputy secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and was New Zealand Ambassador to the Russian Federation.

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