The world needs “naïve kiwi optimism”.
That was the key message from Prime Minister Bill English before a packed audience of diplomats, top civil servants, academics and former politicians at the Institute of International Affairs annual dinner on Wednesday night in Wellington.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs drafted a speech for the evening, but the Prime Minister abandoned that and instead spoke off the cuff for nearly 40 minutes with a wide-ranging and at times provocative and innovative view of international relations.
Reaction from diplomats at the dinner was positive with some of the country’s closest friends impressed with his acknowledgement of the five eyes intelligence arrangement.
“Before I took on this job, I was not quite as aware of how close the 5 Eyes relationships actually are,” he said.
“I’m pleased that even through a period of fiscal austerity as we’ve had in New Zealand, we’ve committed to long-term plans for, and an overhaul of, our defence forces and security agencies in ways that I now realise are vital to the credibility of our contribution, which isn’t just about amounts of money – I think that’s a very poor measure of anything you do in government – but about the quality of that contribution and the commitment to lifting it.”
And he drew on his recent trip to the Pacific to not only enthuse about the relationship with Pacific countries but also to talk about the new forms of diplomacy we are engaging in the region.
“One of the common themes I adhered to on my trips around four or five of these countries in recent weeks was simply to acknowledge their contribution to New Zealand,” he said.
“While we accept their gratitude for the very good aid projects and other support we’re providing, they’ve supplied us with tens of thousands of people who are in our businesses, in our workplaces, changing our culture, growing our families, and supporting our communities.”
And he said the Pacific was region where non-traditional diplomacy seemed to work.
“I believe that we should not limit ourselves in the projection of influence to the traditional diplomatic channels and its traditional language,” he said.
“ It has a vital purpose but a limited purpose.
“And it connects with some aspects of how other countries work, but limited aspects of how other countries work.”
So, he said, New Zealand had three initiatives.
“One is sports diplomacy.
“I noticed on this trip around the Pacific that there was a great deal of attention to our investments.
“But the ones that were greeted with what I’d think of as happiness were those focused on sport and health.
“Another opportunity is working closely with similar economies in size and focus.
“And the initiative run primarily by the chief government scientist around the small advanced economics, called the Small Advanced Economies Initiative, as you find these things work in foreign affairs: NZ, Ireland, Finland, Denmark, Israel, Singapore, Switzerland, a grouping of economies who are defined by their size and the particular challenges that go with that and each of them, of course, think they’ve got some unique challenges and that’s true.”
The third element was the growing way in which New Zealand is “exporting” its innovative Governmental systems such as the way it manages MMP, the Integrated Data Infrastructure at Stats or the whole social investment approach.
“So as I got around Europe earlier this year, I found that the topic that most engaged the leaders I spoke with – the President of the EU, Chancellor of Germany, PM of Great Britain – was social investment.
“It immediately got their attention, because what NZ is talking about with the way it thinks about government analysis of the needs of its people and how to adapt services to have a more focussed longer term impact and change lives, is an attractive notion to any government, and it’s fresh. “
But it was the theme of naïve Kiwi optimism which infused the whole speech.
“In my view, a bit of naïve kiwi optimism can take us a long way.
“I’ve always thought it’s relatively pointless analysis to say everything is horrendously complicated and going very badly. “
He said trade negotiations needed it as did dealing with climate change.
English was optimistic about agreements with the EU, the TPP 11 and the Pacific Alliance.
And on the great global powers- China and America he reflected on his recent meetings with China’s Premier Li and the United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.
“It was fascinating in the short space of a couple of months to get two views of what they think they’re doing, and what was striking about it was the similarity of the views, which was if anything reassuring rather than worrying – and by that I mean the acceptance of each other’s economic power, and the wariness of the projection of each other’s military power.”
But on the question of the American President, he said that everywhere he went people talked about Trump, so he didn’t.
“I don’t regard it as a kind of disruptive unpredictable wild influence on world affairs – it’s just another cycle of US isolationism.”