It’s one of the ironies of this Government that an administration which sought to purge the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and make it work under a business model with its main priority being trade should now be seeking to portray itself as a global foreign policy leader.

And though there is still considerable ill will directed against it from the former Ambassadors and high flying officers who made it an elite institution in Wellington but who, for one reason or another left, it is clear that the Ministry is back in the business of foreign policy.

Whether it is promoting the security of small islands states, using the Presidency of the United Nations to take a lead on an Israel- Palestine settlement or more subtly moving to try and reform the Security Council, Foreign Minister Murray McCully has announced the most activist agenda for a foreign minister we have seen in a long time.

Even the decision to spend money on a New York apartment for our Ambassador to the UN indicates a change in culture within the Ministry.

But there is quite possibly method behind all this.

New Zealand lives in a region which is dominated by the United States – China rivalry.

As Australian Strategic Studies Professor, Hugh White, a noted student of that rivalry, at the weekend told the Otago Foreign Policy School, there were only two options.

The rivalry, which has already reached the early stages of armed conflict in the South China Sea could escalate or the two big powers could “do a deal”.

As Professor White said, both Australia and New Zealand need that deal because they need both the United States and China in the region.

No matter how glittering the economic advantage, no- one is suggesting that we go all the way with Beijing.


What this means is that our economic security which rests on our relationship with China, is going to become increasingly subject to the swirls and eddies of the politics of East Asia.

So New Zealand’s foreign policy which more and more looks like one step to Beijing, then one to Washington, is thus designed to maintain New Zealand’s hope of  preventing any move that could increase the rivalry between Washington and Beijing and thus risk conflict.

To occupy this middle position means that New Zealand has to define itself as having an independent foreign policy, one that is in the pocket of neither China nor the US.

That has to be more than something defined simply by trade.  It is an ambition that requires a foreign policy.

And that’s why diplomacy is returning to MFAT.