COMPASS POINTS--A Memoir

By McIntyre, W. David | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2019 | Go to article overview

COMPASS POINTS--A Memoir


McIntyre, W. David, New Zealand International Review


COMPASS POINTS--A Memoir

Author: Neil Plimmer

Published by: Steele Roberts Aotearoa, Wellington, 2018, 315pp, $34.99.

What do diplomats do? A question often asked by people who see daily news about international crises or about endless negotiations and conferences, but who rarely meet anyone actually involved in them. And it is the nature of their profession that diplomats are, on the whole, discreet about their doings. So although historians and political scientists have covered comprehensively the evolution of New Zealand's foreign policy and have analysed the key treaties and documents, New Zealand diplomats are not the topic of biography and rarely give us autobiographies. Indeed, a deputy secretary of foreign affairs, John Larkindale, reviewing a book by a retired ambassador, suggested that 'the world has little to gain from the reminiscences of run-of-the-mill former officials' (New Zealand Review of Books, 24 February 2018).

There are exceptions; and it is worth noting a selection of these. Carl Berendsen, the pioneer of New Zealand's diplomatic corps and our first high commissioner to Canberra, left voluminous and fascinating multi-volume memoirs, which exist in typescript. And an abbreviated version edited by former minister Hugh Templeton appeared from Victoria University Press in 2009 titled Mr Ambassador. Some enlightening thoughts by New Zealand's third foreign affairs secretary, Frank Corner, and five others appeared in the Foreign Affairs jubilee volume in 1993, An Eye, An Ear, and a Voice, edited by Hugh's diplomat brother Malcolm Templeton. Gerald Hensley, who served from 1958 to 1989 and rose to head the Prime Minister's Department, wrote entertainingly in Final Approaches (Auckland University Press, 2006). More recently Gerald McGhie, who was ambassador in Moscow at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, has written in vivid detail of his activities in Balancing Acts: Reflections of a New Zealand Diplomat (Dunmore, 2017). And there is plenty of insight into what diplomats get up to in Joanna Woods's Diplomatic Ladies: New Zealand's Unsung Envoys (Otago University Press, 2012).

About a third of Neil Plimmer's memoir covers in some detail his nineteen years with MFAT and its predecessors. Joining the Department of External Affairs in 1961, assigned to the South Pacific Division, he was given the task of writing a review of the South Pacific Commissions constitution. Then, as third secretary in the high commission in Apia, he monitored New Zealand's aid programme in Western Samoa, performed consular duties and also acted as the British vice-consul. Back in the department in Wellington in 1964, he represented External Affairs on the Overseas Posting Committee and became secretary of the Cabinet Economic Committee dealing with matters relating to the EEC.

Posted to the embassy in Washington in 1966, he was surprised at the strand of anti-Americanism he sensed in New Zealand before he left. His tasks in the embassy included covering South-east Asian countries on the periphery of the Vietnam War; also Eastern Europe; international communications, and New Zealand's representation of Western Samoa's interests. Instructed to 'step up our domestic coverage', he began to cultivate a New Zealand constituency among congressmen. 'It was the best job I could imagine.' It meant building links with businessmen and politicians. 'Our immersion in American politics was as complete as it could be, without engaging in activities that I felt risky for a foreign diplomat.'

After four years in Washington, Plimmer returned to Wellington as deputy head of the Administration Division with responsibility for overseas postings and gradings and promotions. A period as counsellor in the Rome embassy, 1973-77, involved watching Italian voting at the EEC, reporting on Italian policies that might affect New Zealand and being our representative at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, based in Rome. …

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