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.