“The longer you can look back, the further you can look forward.”

Speech to the MFAT at 75 conference

3.30pm 18 October 2018
Pipitea Marae, Wellington

“The longer you can look back, the further you can look forward.”

Winston Churchill


Good afternoon, and to all current and past officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, let me extend the government’s congratulations on achieving your 75th anniversary.

As you examine the 75 years of foreign ministry service you should do so with an eye to the future.  There are lessons from the past which will give clues about the future challenges we will face, and also guide what diplomatic strategies we will need to adopt.  

This country’s fundamental principles are clear to us all and universally accepted – we value and advocate an international rules-based order, we value the western democratic model that our history has shaped, and we value the fundamentals of human rights and legal frameworks. Identifying this is the easier bit.  Harder is knowing how to successfully defend those principles when they come under real-power pressure, regardless from whom.

A platinum jubilee also invokes a special quality, one worthy of celebration. When the ministry was formed in 1943 New Zealand had still not achieved sovereignty over its own law making nor granted its people their own citizenship. Those features of a self-confident and independent state would follow in 1947 and 1948, respectively. The ministry’s history, therefore, also traces and intersects at key points New Zealand’s journey towards an independence that today we can proudly call the jewel in our foreign policy.        

History as a warning sign

That great conservative Winston Churchill once said, “Study history, study history.  In history lies all the secrets of statecraft”. Reflecting on the issues and successes of the past provides vital context for the challenges we face today. It is fashionable to always refer to the current era as being subject to levels of complexity and uncertainty that are unprecedented. But now-ism, the belief that everything that is happening to you is unique, can be a trap. While the pace of change today is unprecedented, the fundamental challenges faced by earlier eras were profound.  For this reason understanding the issues and successes of the past is a vital context for our emerging challenges.

When you look at New Zealand’s foreign policy actions over the last 75 years it is remarkable how the underlying themes of our approach are the same. For 75 years, New Zealand has prioritised safeguarding our national security and seeking international peace, developing commercial opportunities for New Zealanders, and preserving the environment and natural resources. In that sense our foreign approach has stayed much the same.  What is changing is the resurfacing of some past trends. Looking across the globe today it is possible to identify trends along the fault lines of authoritarianism, nationalism, and isolationism. Worryingly, all those trends have existed in the past.  We must give consideration to what such trends might mean for our trading interests, to our regional security, and for our voice’s ability to generate meaningful change.

Understanding the world

Of course, also understanding exactly what’s happening in the world as we speak is, simply put, critical. Yet current day digital media platforms blur the picture. There are clear risks to New Zealand in a world where misinformation on digital platforms can be used by those with malign intent to support the growth of authoritarianism, isolationism and nationalism.  These platforms create a new frontier for governments and foreign ministries, to address.

To understand events, governments and their foreign policy makers must have the means to critically evaluate the substance from the noise. This is all the more important with the growth of disinformation in mainstream media and social media outlets.  In my view, our fourth estate pillar is crumbling, with journalism eroded by digital funding models which are not coping.

Knowing how to resolve foreign policy challenges in these digital echo chambers is something else.  A foreign ministry will not find enduring political solutions by following Presidential social media. Real solutions are worked out through thorough analysis of information, consideration of the real underlying issues, and hard-headed evaluation of possible solutions. This needs to be based on real connections, personal relationships, an acute understanding of realpolitik, and an understanding of the environment from which information is emanating.

Foreign Ministries need to also carefully weigh the risks and the rewards in their social media communications, so as to not become part of the problem. They must be conscious of the genuine risks that a misguided word or tweet can have to affect country-to-country relations or move financial markets in a negative way. Or at least, they must be very, very deliberate.  If you doubt that, just ask the Canadian foreign ministry.

A seminal year

This 75th anniversary conference is being held in proximity to a milestone date for the coalition government – a year in office.  It may well be that history will look upon this year as a seminal year for our foreign affairs portfolio.  We are, for the first time in a decade, funding the Ministry properly, addressing a deficit of capability and resources critical for New Zealand to hold its ground and make its mark. We are stepping up to fund Pacific aid and directing it to where it can make a difference.  Support and influence cannot come without resources spent consistently and well to build regional options and resilience.  We are also starting to rebuild the state of our defence assets.  The decision of the government to acquire P8 aircraft to replace the Orion fleet is crucial as an acceptable baseline of New Zealand strategic support in our neighbourhood for the maintenance of its economic maritime resources; and we are taking a hard look at our military settings and deployments and the work we undertake around the world.

Looking at the past to understand the future

Looking to the past to understand the future also means recalling that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was formed in 1943 at a time of fundamental physical threats to New Zealand security from World War Two. Understandably, the New Zealand government developed the Ministry to navigate the new world order.  The Canberra Pact of 1944 concluded by Australia and New Zealand was one of the Ministry’s first achievements.  New Zealand and Australia determined that we needed to be key participants in the South Pacific, and that the region should not be forgotten within this changing world. 

The main objectives of the Canberra Pact still ring true today:  New Zealand and Australia agreed to consult on matters of mutual interest; to oppose the placement of military installations in the region; to support the principle of trusteeship for the remaining Pacific island countries, thus paving the way for later decolonisation; and to set up a regional commission to advance the economic, social and political development of the region.   Perhaps to quote Churchill again “the longer you can look back the further forward you can look.”

The questions faced about the future of the Pacific today are different in detail from those faced during discussions of the Canberra Pact.   But it is not drawing too long a bow to see that there are also some common underlying elements in the focus and the response of New Zealand to a situation of international challenge.

The Pacific region continues to be affected by the problems of the world as well as those that are of domestic origin. Challenges of opportunity, of strategic conflict imported from elsewhere in the globe, of international engagement and involvement, and of managing natural resources and environmental challenge, are all constants.  Strategic competition was very real in 1943.  Managing the relationships between big powers remains a genuine factor in the Pacific region today. The importance of avoiding war and preserving peace as a regional priority has also been underlined by learned experience.  Eyes wide open, as an expression, also refers to understanding the past to understand the future.

An independent voice

History has judged New Zealand kindly. As a country we have taken actions, and tested relationships, based on our principles.  The nuclear free stance from the 1970s through to the 1980s is one such example. It reflected the views of the New Zealand public, and fought not just by protest but also by the jurisprudence of the ICJ.  Understanding your own region, making use of multilateral institutions, and making a stand against a superpower has been in the New Zealand psyche in the past, and will be again in the future. 

The sense of independence that New Zealand holds today will also guide our future foreign policy choices. Greater self-reliance, underpinned by the strength of our convictions and underwritten by the resources required to give power to our voice, is the path that this government has set. With greater self-reliance comes self-respect. Both will inform our independent voice when we choose to exercise it.  

A future foreign ministry

Over the last 75 years the foundation for New Zealand’s presence and influence in the world have been laid down. The future requires our foreign ministry to keep-on keeping on. New Zealanders think of themselves as practical, fair-minded, adaptable and tolerant people.  We also expect to be taken seriously on international issues that affect us by virtue of the quality of our contribution.  Looking to the future, MFAT needs to have the courage to take the risks required to grasp future opportunities, and the wisdom to face future adversity.

Without overwhelming economic or military power we need to continue to strongly support international rules and be prepared to speak up in their defence.  Far from this being a naïve position, as is sometimes claimed, this remains New Zealand’s real politik. What other option do we have?

We also need a future Ministry to maintain an acute foreign policy compass to secure New Zealand’s security and trade foundations, an eyes wide open approach to risks to our strategic or economic opportunities, and a fundamental strength in forming robust, trusted, and enabling friendships.

And while the issues and tools of the future will not be exactly the same as the issues of the past, the best qualities of the past are required: Judgement, robust analysis, respect for the other’s point of view, applied intellect, and, most importantly of all, the courage that is required in trying to persuade others of our interests and our solutions.


The work of a Foreign Ministry can be misunderstood.  Consular help and disaster recovery is as much a part of the DNA of the organisation as are high negotiations and outcomes. 

As said before, for all the comforts of a Honolulu or Paris, there is a Honiara and a Baghdad. It can mean living in the midst of insecurity, literally in the eye of a storm, in choking pollution, or without the liberties and ease we take for granted in New Zealand.  And when the terrorists strike, or the cyclone hits, or the coup takes place, this is when the professional demands on a diplomat are the greatest.

Many of you here today have contributed to the achievements of MFAT.  On behalf of the government let me acknowledge those who have served faithfully and well, with skill and determination. Let me also pay particular tribute to two former Ministers of Foreign Affairs who are present today, Rt Hon Sir Don McKinnon, and the Hon Russell Marshall. Thank you.  And to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, happy 75th anniversary.