Moving Beyond Good and Evil: Can Gerry Brownlee Get Past America’s Moral Absolutes?

By   /   April 25, 2017  /   25 Comments

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Notorious among journalists for his tendency towards tetchiness, the words “Gerry Brownlee” and “diplomat” seem particularly ill-matched. The truly great foreign ministers of our history have all been thoughtful, measured and principled individuals.

GERRY BROWNLEE’s rise began with a fall. Or, more accurately, with a push and a shove. It all happened at the launch of the National Party’s 1999 election campaign. Neil Able, a Native Forest Action “campaigner”, had attempted to participate in the event, and Gerry Brownlee, the first-term MP for the Christchurch electorate of St Albans, had used what a District Court Judge would later describe as “excessive and unnecessary force” to shut him up – and out – of the proceedings. Hardly the most auspicious of beginnings for the man Prime Minister Bill English today (24/4/17) introduced as New Zealand’s next Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Notorious among journalists for his tendency towards tetchiness, the words “Gerry Brownlee” and “diplomat” seem particularly ill-matched. The truly great foreign ministers of our history have all been thoughtful, measured and principled individuals. One thinks of Labour’s Peter Fraser and Norman Kirk, or National’s Brian Talboys and Don McKinnon. Bluster, bluff and belligerence tend to be associated with the portfolio’s also-rans. Brownlee will need to display a hitherto unrecognised talent for perspicacity, subtlety and tact if he is to be mentioned in the same breath as his more illustrious predecessors.

Of course, Brownlee could be aspiring to the same rogue status that attached itself to David Lange and Winston Peters. The former’s wit and verve, when combined with his Methodist lay preacher’s determination to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like an never-failing stream” allowed him to set New Zealand foreign policy on a new and bracing course. Winston Peter’s easy gregariousness and roguish charm, by contrast, drew New Zealand’s erstwhile American friends out of their Lange-induced aloofness and back into the warm waters of mateship.

To reach those giddy heights, however, Brownlee will have to stop looking and sounding as if he considers himself much too busy to think.

Interviewed by the breathless Corin Dann on last Sunday’s Q+A current affairs show, for example, Brownlee spoke darkly of the North Koreans’ “evil intent”. Clearly, the new Foreign Affairs minister does not subscribe to the idea that terms like “good” and “evil” are a profound hindrance to establishing fruitful international relationships. If a regime is designated as “evil”, then the moral scope for constructive engagement and dialogue is zero. Diplomacy works best when it is guided by empiricism – not metaphysics.

But an empirically driven foreign policy requires a minister who is not only in full command of the facts about his neighbours, but who is also determined to understand them. That presupposes a deep personal affinity for history and geography, science and culture, philosophy and religion. Nowhere is the French proverb tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner (to understand all is to forgive all) of more practical use than in determining the most apposite response to the actions of nation states.

Sadly, that does not sound like our Gerry. As is the case with so many of his right-wing political brethren, the collapse of Soviet communism in 1989-91 and the Al Qaeda terror attacks of 9/11, have caused Brownlee to regard international relations as a grim global morality play in which the Children of Light (the US and its Western and oil-producing allies) are called upon to wage a ceaseless metaphysical struggle against the Children of Darkness (everybody else, but especially Russia, China and “Radical Islamic Terrorism”).

Viewed from this perspective, the world is a place in which the pronouncements of the United States – that “shining city set upon a hill” – are accorded the status of holy writ. It is the “indispensable nation” that decides who is “Good”, and who is “Evil”, and against America’s judgements there is no appeal.

Under this peculiar diplomatic dispensation the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Rules of War and the carefully constructed checks and balances of the UN Security Council are relevant only to the degree that they accord with the judgements of the United States. If they do not facilitate the expression of American will, then those affirming them must be condemned, ignored and, in the most egregious cases, punished.

In his guise as New Zealand’s Defence Minister, Brownlee exhibited every sign of wanting New Zealand to go on doing its bit against these “evildoers”. As far as Gerry was concerned, the global ambitions of the United States were in every case praiseworthy and true. Those who stood against them were not only her enemies – they were our enemies, too. And the only acceptable New Zealand response to an American command to “Jump!” was to ask: “How high up the Tirgiran Valley?”

We can only hope that the Minister’s transition from Defence to Foreign Affairs results in New Zealand having much less to do with excessive and unnecessary force, and considerably more engagement with the intelligent empiricism so vital to conducting a practical, principled and proudly independent foreign policy.

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25 Comments

  1. Francesca says:

    Here’s a hint for Gerry Brownlee on how to solve the question of North Korea
    1: put pressure on our US ally to agree to a peace settlement with North Korea.
    North Korea has repeatedly asked for this, but the US refuses.At present there is a glorified cessation of hostilities,an armistice
    2;Persuade the US to recognise and address its breach of the armistice deal, whereby no new weapons were to be introduced into Korea
    In 1958 nuclear missiles were deployed to SKorea and in 1959 nuclear cruise missiles were based in SKorea with a range that could reach China and the Soviet Union
    Is it any wonder that the North Koreans saw the need for nuclear deterrents of their own
    3: Persuade the US to consider the deal NKorea has repeatedly offered:
    Quit the aggressive military invasion mimicking exercises on the border in exchange for NKorea renouncing it’s nuclear program

    In short, assure N Korea of it’s existential security, apply genuine diplomacy(not sanctions)and give up the idea of regime change in Pyongpang

    Does Gerry Brownlee believe in NZ,s independence sufficiently to “get the guts” to do this?
    Not likely
    The US prefers to stir the tensions so that it can maintain it’s bases in Sth Korea in order to contain China, never mind if it’s boneheaded ambitions threaten the whole world
    And NZ will meekly give them ample endorsement

    • Sam Sam says:

      A regime like north korea proves you dont need private capital and a country with out private capital is a country with out corperations.

      So the Kims are known for there blood thurstiness and childish fireworks displays. But few will acknowledge that the ills have succefully fended off the most powerful nation on the planet since 1950.

      History shows that south korea has been used as a staging point for an invasion of japan from the west most notable by Genghis Khan a couple times and WW2 russian general Aleksandr Vasilevsky who where both defeated in there by a couple of Hurricans and a couple of tacticool nukes. One word marks these occasions. Banzai!

      Those that place themselves place themselves above the likes of Genghis Khan and Aleksandr Vasilevsky with what they have experienced are surely boys who call wolf.

    • Historian pete says:

      I was about to write about North Korea, but Francesca has stolen all my main points! An excellent summary of what needs to Happen.

    • Trevor Mills says:

      Very interesting information. I wasn’t aware of such offers by the North Koreans and how America has chosen to ignore it. But then, what can you expect from a pack of military-industrial-congressional complex drivers who want complete control and consider themselves the self-entitlements of high almighty to world power?

  2. Sam Sam says:

    National is totally the wrong government you want doing all that.

  3. We can only hope that the Minister’s transition from Defence to Foreign Affairs results in New Zealand having much less to do with excessive and unnecessary force, and considerably more engagement with the intelligent empiricism so vital to conducting a practical, principled and proudly independent foreign policy.

    My money is on a Lotto ticket, Chris. I have better odds on winning that, rather than any miraculous “transition” experienced by Minister Brownlee.

    • Mike in Auckland says:

      Trouble for the Nats is, they simply have nobody better, they have a lack of suitable “talent” for the job. Who would you suggest to be foreign minister from the lot they have in Parliament?

      • Who would you suggest to be foreign minister from the lot they have in Parliament?

        Jeez, Mike, that’s one of the toughest questions ever put to me.

        Can I get back to you on that one – maybe after the election?!

        In all seriousness, I can think of only a single one – maybe Treaty negotiations minister, Chris Finlayson. He presents himself as measured, intelligent, and professional (most of the time). The rest of them I wouldn’t trust to conduct foreign affairs with Pitcairn Island.

        • Sam Sam says:

          We’ve gone so far into lala land and lost so much foreign affairs knowledge that I think we to make some trainers that can teach foreign affiars. I know they have some sort of classes in Uni but to be honest. I could learn more about foreign policy from the free infomation available on TDB than i could from a paid degree. I mean they still use Henry Kissinger, who is the devil incarnate. That’s one example of cold war references. Some how we have to cut all cold war references

        • Patrick says:

          Well you certainly wouldn’t send a parliamentarian of the female persuasion to Pitcairn island.

  4. Doubting Thomas says:

    Interesting to see that shortly after the Wanaka 5-Eyes Spyfest over the weekend before Anzac Day, New Zealand looks like it has taken up Trump’s Middle-East, Muslim, selective Muslim scapegoat – discrimination against some undisclosed ethnic or religious groups.

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/politics/news/article.cfm?c_id=280&objectid=11843889

    “New Zealand’s civil aviation authority “is assessing the evidence [from where? DT] to determine what is appropriate,” transport minister Simon Bridges told Reuters in an interview in Dubai.

    Additional security measures would affect passengers flying from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Doha, Qatar, where carriers Emirates and Qatar Airways, respectively, fly direct to New Zealand.

    I will sleep a lot safer knowing that Simon Bridges has deferred the decision firmly into the hands of Civil Aviation, especially in the busy run-up to the election.

    When NZ selectively discriminates against direct flights from Mexico, then I know that we’ve truly made it as the US’s 53rd state, and our honorary green cards will give us better and fairer citizenship rights in the US, than we currently get in AUS.

    Unless we are Muslikiwis, or more than half Mexikiwis, or Bondikiwis?

  5. Kevin says:

    There are some advantages with Gerry’s recent appointment.He’ll be out of the country a lot,he won’t be able to bully and asult folk and get away with it and he’ll be using interpreters from time to time, so we’ll all be able to understand what he’s on about.

  6. Jack Ramaka says:

    Hopefully Gerry will put his brain into gear b4 he opens his mouth, National sadly lacking in the intellectual department these days?

  7. Ralph Boardman says:

    I see a golden opportunity here for New Zealand to make a grand gesture for world peace and make a dollar or two on the side. We should offer maybe Auckland or Antipodes islands or both as venues for US and South Korea to conduct their war games.
    Maybe Gerry is just the man to pull it off!

    • J S Bark J S Bark says:

      I don’t think Gerry has pulled it off for ages now…

      • Mike in Auckland says:

        He may even forget to “pull off” the string when parachuting for the cameras next time, there may be “hope”?!

  8. countryboy says:

    From where does one get such blimp overalls? I have a blimp upon which I wish to put such fetching overalls. It too, flies through the air at my expence, achieves little other than a sense of wonder at how it get’s aloft and when it’s out of sight I wish it to remain out of sight. Sadly though, it always finds its way back to its mooring trough.

  9. Stuart Munro says:

    I think the US & China will love Brownlee – a crude and stupid bully without a brain in his head or an an idea in it, who will scurry to sign NZ up for any dodgy cause. Really I think the point has been reached where voters take matters into their own hands and throw this worthless piece of crap out. You wouldn’t have it on your porch much less in your living room, you shouldn’t have to have it representing your country.

  10. peterlepaysan says:

    I wonder how well informed he is about Finland these days?

  11. Andrea says:

    Gerry Brownlee – and Boris Johnson and Rex Tillerson.

    Scary, eh?

    Wonder if he’ll offend Finland again? Or has he something larger in mind?

    • If he does Andrea, and Brownlee provokes the Finns to invade us – I, for one, will welcome our new Scandinavian Overlords.

      They have free tertiary education and amongst the highest education standards, according to PISA. They also have high union participation; nationwide union awards, and Finland’s “Gini co-efficient” (measuring inequality) is rated at 25.6 – better than New Zealand’s 33.0 (the higher the rating, the higher inequality).

      Their GDP per capita is $42,654, compared to our $36,950.

      Their prison incarceration rate is 55 prisoners per 100,000 – ours is 202. (ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_incarceration_rate)

      In 2012, Finland ranked second in Gross National Happiness by The Earth Institute.

      Cool eh? The Finns might teach us a thing or three.

  12. David Stone says:

    Hi Chris
    To your outline of the world political environment that Mr Brownlee is to enter, I would add that it is at a time when American politicians call for the expulsion of Tulsi Gabbard for daring to speak with Assad at all, and British politicians call for his wife to be striped of her British citizenship for protesting that her husband had nothing to do with a poison gas attack on their people. To be a western diplomat in the present climate requires as you say unquestioning support for whatever is in the American deep state’s and corporate interests, and the vilification of any nation’s leadership that seeks to prioritise the interests of their own people.
    Gerry Brownlee is the perfect choice.

  13. Mike the Lefty says:

    Interesting to hear on radio yesterday Matthew Hooton’s glowing appraisal of Mouse McCully as “the best foreign minister since Lange and McKinnon”.
    The way Hooton talked you would have thought McCully was a real in-your-face no b..s minister who told odious conceited foreign emperors where to go.
    Seriously!
    McCully the monster!
    Then Hooton qualified this by explaining that McCully was actually only like this to his subordinates, not the foreign powers.
    Another way of saying that McCully was a bully to his inferiors whilst being a mouse who lay on his belly everytime the Americans got a bit cross with him.
    McCully may have been a great foreign minister from the point of view of the foreign powers because he did whatever they wanted him to do and said whatever they wanted him to say (aka a yes man).
    From the point of view of NZ he was a disaster and undermined NZ’s credibility as a voice of reason amongst squabbling super powers.