New Zealand's Global Diplomacy Story-Book: Ken Ross Analyses the Role of Our Prime Ministers in the Projection of New Zealand Globally

By Ross, Ken | New Zealand International Review, January-February 2014 | Go to article overview

New Zealand's Global Diplomacy Story-Book: Ken Ross Analyses the Role of Our Prime Ministers in the Projection of New Zealand Globally


Ross, Ken, New Zealand International Review


Our prime ministers have been the most important players projecting New Zealand globally. Of the fifteen prime ministers since 1945, Norman Kirk stands out the most. His inspired branding of New Zealand as a progressive small state, with a deep internationalism central to our national identity, was a pinnacle moment for our global diplomacy. He found for us the global role best suited to our strengths--being a good international citizen. The Kirk branding endures, largely because of his outstanding effort. David Lange, Jim Bolger and Helen Clark have backed his branding with strong support performances. Sir Robert Muldoon and John Key have been the only prime ministers who have not committed wholeheartedly to the Kirk brand.

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Our prime ministers are the most important players projecting the New Zealand government globally. I have watched them for the past five decades, usually from a vantage point of close proximity, in the role of informing them about current global developments.

Commentary on how capably each of the prime ministers engaged in global diplomacy has been sparse. Likewise, how they rate among the other prime ministers in this sphere.

Norman Kirk stands out as the most adept. In the early 1970s his inspired branding of the country as a progressive small state, with a deep internationalism central to our national identity, was a pinnacle moment for New Zealand global diplomacy. He found for us the global role best suited to our strengths--being a good international citizen.

Kirk earns top spot for establishing a brand that endures, largely because of his initial outstanding effort. David Lange, Jim Bolger and Helen Clark have backed up his branding with strong support performances. Sir Robert Muldoon and John Key have been the only prime ministers who have not committed wholeheartedly to the Kirk brand. Muldoon was contrarian by deliberate intent. Key's non-committal effort has been by default.

This article looks at the intellectual scaffolding around the assessment of Kirk's importance and of the strong support performances by Lange, Bolger and Clark. The accomplishments that constitute the case for Kirks top spot will be detailed in the next issue.

The first analytical task was to prepare profiles of the fifteen prime ministers who have led New Zealand since 1945, looking particularly at their contributions in global diplomacy. The second task is to explain, within the context of New Zealand's international relations, the importance of branding us as a progressive small state committed to internationalism.

New Zealand's best performances on the global stage have occurred when we acted as a progressive small state. Such endeavours generated considerable worldwide appreciation that this is what New Zealand is best at: being a good international citizen. How we have been seen by others, and not just as we have perceived ourselves, is at the forefront of this story.

Political biographies

Scholarly reflection on the fifteen New Zealand prime ministers since 1945 has been limited. Of the handful of biographies, the best is Keith Sinclair's Walter Nash (1976). Margaret Clark's editing of seven Stout Research Centre conference-inspired books on New Zealand prime ministers has seen further political biographies published. A small pool of academic articles and the occasional book consider which prime ministers performed best, but their international diplomacy is rarely mentioned in that material.

In preparing the prime ministers' profiles, I have drawn on the thoughts of Keith Sinclair and Ben Pimlott, Harold Wilson's biographer. In July 1984 Sinclair outlined his insights on political biography at the Stout Research Centre's first-ever conference (it focused on biography in New Zealand). (1) Pimlott sets out his reflections in his 1989 inaugural lecture as professor of politics and contemporary history at Birkbeck College, London. …

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