Speech by Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade Brook Barrington, delivered by Ben King, MFAT Deputy Secretary, Americas and Asia Group, at the University of Canterbury, 20 September 2018

Āku mihi, kia koutou katoa (my acknowledgments to you all)

I want to start by acknowledging that I’m here tonight representing the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Brook Barrington.

Brook has a busy period of travel ahead.  Right now he is in Australia; and from there he will travel with the Prime Minister to the UN General Assembly in New York. 

So I relay apologies from Brook; and confirm that my remarks this evening are delivered on his behalf. 


This year celebrates the 75th birthday of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the purpose of which is to act in the world to make New Zealanders safer and more prosperous.  It is therefore a good time to step back and reflect on New Zealand’s response to the increasingly challenging external environment.


The Ministry’s ‘birth’ came about as a result of another – exceptionally - challenging time in New Zealand’s history.  It is tempting then, at this anniversary point, to draw comparisons between the tumultuous times of 1943 and the uncertainties of 2018.  But let me start from a different place. 

As luck would have it, our nearest neighbour is our closest friend, and the most rapid expansion of the middle class in economic history is occurring in our hemisphere.  International counterparts take New Zealand seriously.  We have a well-deserved reputation for being a constructive, problem-solving and reliable country which others want to have working alongside them.  We are embedded in the important institutions of the Asia-Pacific.  Our ideas often get traction, and our influence generally outstrips our size and location.

More broadly, we are seeing – and supporting – some attempts to reinforce global rules in areas such as the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty and the Paris Agreement.  Millions of people continue to be lifted out of poverty and illiteracy.  And core elements of the post-war order – the UN machinery, the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Trade Organisation, the disarmament and arms control architecture – remain in place and can (and in some cases must) be reinvigorated.

Indeed, why would any permanent member of the Security Council want to see its authority reduced? Or any major trading nation seriously want to see the collapse of economic openness and the rules which set a level-playing field?  If history is any guide then no power can absolutely prevail indefinitely, and both the risen and the rising need to negotiate more often than they might wish. 

There is, however, no question that at this moment global power is being contested, that there is significant pressure on the existing international system and many of the principles and rules that underpin it, and that pervasive challenges like climate change, unregulated migration and uneven access to the benefits of globalisation are fuelling uncertainty and nationalistic responses.

Predictability, one of the rivets of international affairs, is currently sprung.

Global resilience has been weakened by rising debt and falling social licence.

And in our own hemisphere we are living through an unprecedented period of strategic dynamism. 

Never before have the United States, China, Japan and India been major regional powers simultaneously.  New organising constructs such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific are emerging to reflect these realities.  And many of the world’s potential hot-spots are in a part of the world – North Asia – which lacks the formal architecture used by states to support dialogue, norms and rules.

Against this background, the risks for small countries with global interests are acute, and in sands such as these, strong foundations are needed.

The Four Pillars

E.H. Carr once observed that a rules-based international order “cannot be understood independently of the political foundation on which it rests and the political interests which it serves”.  But interests derive from values and so the effectiveness of New Zealand’s foreign policy must begin at home. 

New Zealand’s values, which are rooted in fairness, as well as our reputation for domestic stability, robust institutions and constructive pragmatism, lie at the heart of our soft power and our diplomacy.  This is not to understate our hard power —the deployments of our defence assets and hard-nosed diplomacy where it is needed — but we get a long way in the world by being New Zealanders, with all that our partners think that stands for.

It seems to me, therefore, that this is a time for us, at home and abroad, to be resolute in our commitment to the shield of democracy and its two supporters of openness and tolerance; to the rule of law which both underpins and stems from that democracy; and to the universal civil, political and human rights to which New Zealand is covenanted and which we have enshrined in law. 

This commitment cannot not be theoretical.  We must act in ways which reinforce the robustness of our domestic institutions, including by the provision of free and frank policy advice and the meeting of obligations under the Official Information Act, without fear or favour.  And in our strategic actions we must do all we can to build economic and social capital in New Zealand, for the greater our resilience at home, the more we will have scope to act with independence abroad.      

It is into this bedrock of our national values and our national resilience that the four foundational pillars that might be seen to underpin New Zealand’s foreign policy – rules, architecture, relationships and diversification – must be driven.

We benefit from a rules-based international order which reflects our national values; which is based on the sovereignty of the nation state; which delivers all such states the same rights and obligations regardless of size, location or power; and which requires the peaceful and lawful resolution of disputes.

The mere existence of rules is, however, insufficient.  Only in the interplay between the rights of the state and its obligations to the collective are they given life.  And the theatre for this interplay is international and regional architecture.  It is by being a member of the United Nations or the East Asia Summit or the Paris Agreement on Climate Change or the International Court of Justice that makes it possible for New Zealand to reinforce the rules-based order, to amplify our influence on it and within it, and to benefit from it.

But if rules and architecture represent the bourse of foreign policy, bilateral relationships are its currency.  There is no doubt that New Zealand profits from building and sustaining a network of strong bilateral relationships, some held long and others short, across all regions, which we can leverage in the pursuit of shared interest.  But the coinage of a good relationship risks being debased if the only reason it is good is because we are asking nothing of it.  And with our limited resources New Zealand cannot afford to invest without coolly calculating which of our relationships will best add to our national stock of safety and prosperity.

The fourth foundational pillar is the diversification of our trade.  Trading a range of goods and services across a range of markets, and securing investment from a range of sources, helps to underpin New Zealand’s prosperity and insulate us from the vagaries of the international economy.  We have, of course, experienced an alternate trade universe, and there wasn’t much warmth when the sun disappeared.

Pursuing New Zealand’s Interests

But if our national values, our resilience at home, and the four pillars all help to tether our foreign policy, it is not the same as having a clear sense of where our interests lie and which of those interests we should pursue.  That requires an act of choosing.

And so the Ministry is focusing its efforts on some core areas of work.

We are working to strengthen, protect and use international rules and institutions to pursue New Zealand’s values and interests.

We are helping to build a productive, sustainable and inclusive economy at home, and to support more than 625,000 New Zealanders employed in the export sector, by growing the value, sustainability and reach of New Zealand’s exports, and by promoting and growing better international connections for New Zealand exporters.  We are also working to rebuild within New Zealand the social licence for trade.

We are intensifying long-standing efforts to embed New Zealand as an active and integral partner in the Asia-Pacific, with a particular focus on regional stability and economic integration.  It is in this part of the world where the balance of New Zealand’s economic and security interests requires the most accurate calibration, and where we must be a participant and not a spectator.  

We are promoting a stable, prosperous and resilient Pacific in which New Zealand’s interests and influence are safeguarded.  Our Pacific engagement is non-discretionary, pressing and complex.  The Government’s Pacific Reset signals a more ambitious approach.  It will require a wider range of New Zealand agencies and other trusted donors to work together; will bear on Pasifika peoples living in New Zealand; will benefit from New Zealand and Australia being even more aligned on regional matters; and will need us to ‘shift the dial’ on fundamental issues such as lifting levels of disaster and climate change resilience, addressing levels of debt and soft loans, tackling the non-communicable diseases epidemic, improving Pasifika connections with the wider world through transport and digital links, keeping the region free from militarisation and strategic competition,  and ensuring that the countries of the region earn better returns from (and have more control over) their maritime resources.

We are continuing to work in support of sustainable international solutions to global environment and natural resource challenges that impact on New Zealand.  Our work on climate change, in particular, is about as important, and as challenging, as it gets.  It is at the interface between the domestic, the regional and the international. It is at the fracture line between developed and developing countries.  It is about money and inter-generational equity.  It is technically and scientifically and diplomatically rigorous.  It is existential and urgent.  And everyone has a view. 

We are leading New Zealand’s diplomatic efforts to advance the safety of New Zealanders and to protect New Zealand’s security.  In an increasingly volatile global context, in which New Zealanders make more than 2.8 million overseas trips each year, we need to be proactive and deliberate in mitigating various security threats. This requires us to take action in response to direct threats to national security. It requires us to broaden and deepen our bilateral security cooperation. And it requires us to advance collective security and defend the rules-based international order through contributions to global peace and security and disarmament initiatives, including the government’s announcements earlier this week of an extension of the New Zealand Defence Force military training deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a renewal of three peacekeeping missions in the Middle East and Africa.

And in pursuing these various interests we are building and using targeted international relationships, maximising our influence by working at different levels (fostering and leveraging relationships between leaders, individuals, agencies and institutions) and across different channels (building relationships between governments; securing frameworks for, and actively supporting, trade and business relationships; and encouraging and maximising the positive impact of people-to-people links).  We invest in such relationships not for their own sake, but for the outcomes they can secure for New Zealand.

The Practice of Diplomacy

You might nonetheless ask why, in an age characterised by Skype, Twitter and cheaper international travel, making New Zealanders safer and more prosperous requires a foreign service with a global presence.

A basic answer is that formal relations between states, in times of ease but especially in times of tension, benefit from having mutually recognised and respected transmission mechanisms (Embassies and High Commissions), rules (starting, but by no means ending, with the Vienna Convention), norms (the skilled plying of a trade based on commonly understood diplomatic practice) and representatives who can authoritatively represent the state, negotiate on its behalf, and commit the state to formal undertakings (Ambassadors and High Commissioners).

A more textured answer is that our national interests are best advanced if our negotiating partners trust us, and trust is founded in relationships, and relationships require familiarity (if not always mutual understanding), and familiarity requires a continuity of presence and a constancy of behaviour. 

Having people who understand the culture of the receiving state, who can identify even the smallest fragment of shared interest, and who can leverage such fragments into something bigger is also useful – and these are not things easily or enduringly achieved by sporadic and ‘light touch’ contact from a distance.

These same skills which, by and large, are ably deployed by MFAT staff abroad also need to be honed and applied at home.  And here we can do better.

The reach and mana of our overseas network is one of the Government’s most valuable assets and yet the Ministry still runs a stakeholder engagement model whereby much of our intellectual capital sits at Post while Wellington pretends to be authoritative.  This made sense when ships were slow and telegrams were expensive, but in an age of Skype and cheap air travel we can surely deploy the network a lot more cleverly than we do. 

And perhaps the sometimes introverted network model which can characterise many foreign ministries also helps to shape a somewhat introverted outreach style, in which we can sometimes confuse information with consultation, and speak more than we hear.  Yet public trust and confidence in the internet age is something to be built and not claimed and so we need first and foremost to be seen as public servants, working in collaboration with others for common purpose and common good.

Reconciling Values, Interests and Diplomacy in a Contested World

Let me now try and bring all of this together in a way which might be helpful to all of those, within Government and without, who might have a role in helping New Zealand to navigate through turbulent international waters.

This country of ours has global interests.  Those interests exist in an environment which is becoming more contested, not just issue-by-issue but in terms of the fundamental rules and architecture which has served us well for more than 70 years.  That contest is acute in our own region, which is also where the underpinnings of our prosperity and identity are most closely interrogated. 

Building on all that has just been said, it is possible to identify ten basic principles or approaches to safeguard and advance New Zealand’s position in this more contested world.

First, strengthen and sustain economic, social and institutional resilience at home.

Second, be deliberate in supporting New Zealand’s values, speaking out in defence of them when required, even where that might put us at odds with others.

Third, have a clear sense of our core interests, over both the short-run and the long.  Clarity from the Government of the day, plus our own ten-year strategic framework, are important elements of this. 

Fourth, uphold existing international law consistently and predictably, including when traditional partners deviate from rules and norms in ways that harm our core interests.

Fifth, work with like-minded countries to reinforce existing multilateral, plurilateral, regional or mini-lateral architecture that has served (or which could serve) New Zealand well.  It might, for example, be time to see more opportunity in bodies like the Commonwealth or ASEM or the Five Power Defence Arrangement or the Small Advanced Economies Initiative, and to intensify our efforts in initiatives such as APEC, fossil fuel subsidy reform and fisheries subsidies reform.

Sixth, be open to new rules and new architecture, from any source, which is open and transparent, consonant with our values and by which we might advance our interests — and be wary of initiatives that arbitrarily exclude particular countries or regions.  Trade for All will provide us with opportunities to build new minilateral or plurilateral connections, as might the Pacific Reset and the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty and our climate change efforts.  These are opportunities that must be grasped.          

Seventh, continue to build a global portfolio of friendships and connections, placing particular weight on those who either (a) share our values or (b) share our long-term interests or (c) are both accessible and have a meaningful degree influence regionally or multilaterally or (d) could play a spoiling role with respect to either (a) or (b).       

Eighth, accelerate efforts to embed New Zealand in the emerging regional economic architecture, including by ratifying CPTPP and bringing it into force as soon as possible and concluding the Pacific Alliance.

Ninth, we must continue our efforts to build social licence, not just for trade and climate change policies but for foreign and security policy, and for diplomacy more generally. This will require us to become a more extroverted, open, transparent, plain-speaking, media-savvy, collaborative, co-creating, and humble organisation.  The science of diplomacy might be immutable, but the art of it most certainly is not, and our process of organisational alchemy needs to accelerate.

And tenth, we must work at home to sustain the spirit and actions of bipartisanship in international affairs.  New Zealand has long been privileged by the quality of its political leadership, on all sides of the House, and how lucky we are that our leaders see the centre as something to build and to share.  This is something not to be squandered.


I want to end by repeating the closing remarks of the Prime Minister in a speech delivered earlier this year to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs. 

“In this uncertain world, where long accepted positions have been met with fresh challenge – our response lies in the approach that, with rare exceptions, we have always taken. Speaking up for what we believe in, standing up when our values are challenged and working tirelessly to refurbish rules and build architecture, and to draw in partners with shared views.

"We want an international reputation New Zealanders can be proud of. And while we are navigating a level of global uncertainty not seen for several generations, I remain firmly optimistic about New Zealand’s place in the world. Our global standing is high: when we speak, it is with credibility; when we act, it is with decency.”

I can say with confidence that all of the Governments for which I have worked would hold these things to be true.  And in so doing they represent the sentiment of New Zealanders.  This, perhaps above all, is from where our international mana and influence is derived.

Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.

Thank you.