Global Diplomats: The Second Tier: Ken Ross Reviews the Global Diplomacy Performance of Eleven Post-War New Zealand Prime Ministers Other Than the Four Standouts

By Ross, Ken | New Zealand International Review, January-February 2015 | Go to article overview

Global Diplomats: The Second Tier: Ken Ross Reviews the Global Diplomacy Performance of Eleven Post-War New Zealand Prime Ministers Other Than the Four Standouts


Ross, Ken, New Zealand International Review


'The way in which foreign policy is conducted depends very largely on the personality and interest of the Prime Minister of the day.... The Prime Minister tends to play an important, often a decisive, part in decision-making on foreign policy issues.' (1)

(George Laking, 1984)

In assessing the global diplomacy of New Zealand prime ministers since 1945, I have already highlighted the main characters--Norman Kirk, David Lange, Jim Bolger and Helen Clark. This article focuses on the other players, a prime ministerial XI.

How each in this team slots into the story of our high standing as a progressive small state, with a deep internationalism central to our national identity, is caught in brief pen-sketches that pin-point what is most relevant to each prime minister's global diplomacy. The most recent measuring stick of New Zealand's high worldwide standing has been our resounding election to the United Nations Security Council for 2015-16.

When he died in January 2008, George Laking had observed all of the prime ministers since 1945, including working in close proximity to the first four. Laking, who led the foreign ministry for six of its most fascinating years (1967-72), excelled in addressing the public on how we needed to be more aware of world affairs. His speeches became a savvy contribution to the 'unbuttoning' of New Zealand's intellectual and diplomatic talent. Laking handed the baton to Frank Corner just days after Norman Kirk began his prime ministership in December 1972. This article benefits from Laking's ruminations about these prime ministers, which are scattered about, including in this journal--a collected edition of them would be helpful for our diplomatic intellectual capital.

Peter Fraser (1940-49): Fraser's dynamic internationalism is well summed up by Professor Fred Wood's 'small state rampant', the title of the final chapter of his The New Zealand People at War: Political and External Affairs (1958). A half-century later Wood's portrait of Fraser was re-validated by Gerald Hensley's Beyond the Battlefield: New Zealand and its Allies 1939-45 (2009).

The story told in my forthcoming book commences when the war ended in September 1945. By then Fraser's best global diplomacy, including his outstanding effort at the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations, had played out. Fraser's 'small state rampant' mantra heralded the aspirational brand that Kirk was subsequently to institute. Fraser's failure to bed it in leaves little lustre on his final four years as prime minister, when his progressive global diplomacy had been largely garaged. In the post-war years Fraser's global diplomacy was driven, in Keith Sinclair's words, by his having 'become a cold war warrior before the hot war ended; psychologically he was ready for an anti-communist crusade'. (2) Ian McGibbon has finely detailed Fraser's Cold War preoccupations. (3)

Uninterested trio

Sid Holland (1949-57): Holland is the first of a trio among these eleven who match Frank Corner's observation of Keith Holyoake that 'he had little interest in international affairs and put his standing in New Zealand above New Zealand's standing in the world.' (4) Bruce Brown tells us Holland 'was something of an ignoramus in international affairs, in which he also had little interest.' Brown says of Holland that

   at his first attendance at a Commonwealth leaders' meeting, he took
   the line that he was a new boy who had come to learn. The veterans
   thought this appropriate modesty. But when he repeated a similar
   approach at his second meeting, the reaction was less indulgent.
   (5)

The most detailed account of Holland's prime ministership is in Barry Gustafson's The First 50 Years: A History of the National Party (1986). There is no mention there of any global diplomacy by Holland. Malcolm Templeton's Ties of Blood and Empire: New Zealand's Involvement in Middle East Defence and the Suez Crisis 1947-57 (1994) tells the tale of Holland's miserable performance throughout the 1956 Suez Crisis. …

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