The Role of Foreign Minister

  • Winston Peters
Foreign Affairs

7 August 2008

Speech by Foreign Minister Winston Peters to the New Zealand Diplomacy Course, Political Studies Office, University of Auckland

Thank you for the return invitation to speak with you again at this year’s “New Zealand Diplomacy” course.

This continues the tradition of the Foreign Minister, and senior Foreign Affairs staff, offering insights into the practical aspects of diplomacy.

Today's lecture will consider the role of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The constitutional role of the Minister has two dimensions.

The first relates to domestic constitutional considerations, and the second to the role of Foreign Minister in international law.

The current arrangement, in which the Foreign Minister's portfolio sits outside Cabinet, generated some interest among our easily excitable media and within some sections of the academic community when it was announced in 2005.

While this was a new approach to filling the role, the inherent flexibility within our constitution ensured that it was both perfectly legal and legitimate.

Indeed, David Lange had served as Attorney General outside Cabinet towards the end of the Fourth Labour government, and there are several examples internationally of Foreign Ministers who were not from the major governing party.

Despite the mischief-making of some commentators, the current arrangement has never been an impediment in fulfilling the role, nor has it prevented New Zealand's interests being fully represented overseas.

There are several fundamental reasons why this is so.

Promoting New Zealand's interests is the central philosophy of a Foreign Minister - it has to be - irrespective of his or her particular political views.

This naturally leads to a strong convergence between most parties on Foreign Affairs policy. The differences are more nuances than major policy rifts.

And, despite the imaginings of some New Zealand commentators, the truth is that Foreign Ministers around the world just want to get down to business when they meet with their New Zealand counterpart.

They couldn't care less about the hearsay and innuendo that local media are passing off as fact.

The other aspect of the constitutional dimension of the role of Foreign Minister is that it holds a special status in international law.

According to Article 7 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, only Heads of States, Heads of Government, and Ministers for Foreign Affairs are considered to represent their States in matters such as the conclusion of treaties.

New Zealand’s treaty practice is therefore built on the Minister of Foreign Affairs undertaking certain functions.

These are mostly related to the signing of documents and treaties; decisions by the Executive to enter into treaties; engagement in the Parliamentary treaty examination process, and the implementation of legislation required to give effect to international treaties of national significance.

Examples include the Diplomatic Privileges and Immunities Act 1968; Geneva Conventions Act 1958; New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act 1987, and various United Nations Sanctions Regulations.

There is a myth, spread about and repeated by ignorant commentators, that the Foreign Minister appoints diplomats and decides who gets overseas postings.

This is not the case.

It is the Secretary of Foreign Affairs who assigns officers to service overseas and the Governor-General who formally appoints Heads of Mission.

A critical part of the Foreign Minister's role lies in being accountable to Parliament for the proper and effective use of money in Vote Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Vote Overseas Development Assistance.

Day-to-day administration is handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and by NZAID, but it is the Minister who is accountable for the Ministry's performance, and for maintaining or improving its capability.

In the current financial year, those appropriations are $339 million and $478 million respectively – a sizable amount of money to achieve the government’s foreign policy objectives.

The main objective of the Ministry is to ensure that “New Zealand’s security and prosperity interests are advanced and protected; and our voice is heard abroad”.

Advancing those interests takes place in a world that is ever becoming more crowded, complex and competitive.

To achieve this, a small country like New Zealand needs to be present and visible, and able to persuade and negotiate as well as our partners and competitors.

That is why the government has committed an additional $523 in operational funding and a $98 million capital injection, over the next five years.

Those figures do not include NZAID funding.

To get the full impact of this additional sum, you need to consider that the Ministry’s current annual operating budget is around $278 million.

The new funding will enable the Ministry to have greater impact and deliver results in seven areas which are pivotal to the government’s security and prosperity priorities:

• addressing ongoing vulnerabilities in the Pacific
• anchoring New Zealand in evolving Asia-Pacific regional security and political arrangements
• securing increased market access for New Zealand
• transforming the economy through use of international linkages
• negotiating international rules around climate change and resource management
• strengthening New Zealand contributions to international peace and security
• upgrading capability to deal with consular crises and emergencies.

A portion of this new money will be needed to simply ensure the Ministry has the capacity to do the things it needs to do now. This reflects the relatively low level of funding it has received over many, many years.

The overwhelming majority of the new funds, however, will be used to bring about a considerable increase in capability through significant growth in the number of diplomats and support staff.

An extra 100 or more overseas staff positions will be created over the next five years, and there will be extra staff and infrastructure at head office.

In the first phase of this major upgrade, from 2008 to 2010, New Zealand’s presence in our own neighbourhood – Australia, Asia, the Pacific – will grow considerably.

This year we will be opening two new posts and upgrading a third.

The consulate-general in Brisbane will be reactivated, and the Melbourne trade office will be given a diplomatic as well as a trade representative.

These moves will significantly increase our ability to do business throughout Australia, our closest neighbour and our biggest trading partner.

Further afield, we will open an embassy in Stockholm. This will allow us to fill the increasingly obvious on-the-ground gap in our representation in the Nordic countries, and simultaneously increase our reach into the European Union.

Posts in Asia will get more staff and resources so they can work more effectively with important regional groupings such as ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the East Asia Summit. This will also strengthen our work in progressing bilateral and multilateral trade deals.

Our ability to cover Afghanistan – where we have had a long-term troop deployment – will be improved by building up the overstretched embassy in Tehran.

This will also allow us to better engage with Pakistan, where we are building trade and education relationships.

Also in the 2008 to 2010 period, several of our two-person posts will be upgraded to at least three people – meaning they can at last do more than simply keep their heads above water.

New Zealand posts in troubled Pacific countries will be reinforced to meet growing needs. This move will be matched by increased resources for those working on the same countries back in Wellington.

Together these changes represent a re-engineering of our foreign service to meet 21st century conditions.

They are about increasing New Zealand’s international presence, and thereby building our prosperity, our security and our international profile.

This re-engineering acknowledges that our embassies, high commissions, and consulates are increasingly the front offices for a range of interlinked agencies conducting business in other countries, such as foreign affairs, development and trade and enterprise.

When our diplomats step out into the world they are representing and promoting everything this country stands for, including its values.

And at the “sharp end” of those promotional efforts comes the direct involvement of the Foreign Minister.

The portfolio is different from most others, perhaps with the exception of the Trade Negotiations portfolio and the Prime Minister, in that so much of this work can only be achieved offshore.

Each year, many days are spent travelling in pursuit of New Zealand’s bilateral and multilateral interests.

There is a romanticised notion that the life of a Foreign Minister is one of endless travel and cocktail functions.

That is a false picture.

There is a great deal of travel; but it is travel that involves tiring schedules, many meetings, and the need to build strong and influential bonds with counterparts.

The Foreign Minister and staff rarely get to see anything of the country they are visiting beyond the airport, the hotel and the meeting venue.

But this is, in reality, the only way for New Zealand to promote many of its most pressing foreign policy objectives.

These objectives are sought within the context of a constantly changing world, which, despite the absence of major conflicts, is becoming more unpredictable.

Fundamental shifts in relationships and alignments underpin escalating sectarian, ethnic, and internal conflicts that threaten the stability of many regions, including our own.

There are growing concerns about trans-boundary threats, with climate change currently taking centre stage.

At the same time, the pace of globalisation continues to accelerate. The integration of worldwide markets for labour, goods, services, capital, and technology is quickening.

All these factors impact on our foreign policy objectives, require policy responses, and often direct action by the Foreign Minister.

They also require broad and strong relationships with those who share our values and interests and who align with us on questions of security or trade.

These relationships must be maintained, and the best way to do this is to keep in regular contact, through meetings, visits and phone calls.

The responsibilities of being Foreign Minister also have to compete with general parliamentary duties.

It involves an endless paper war – submissions, cables, correspondence, Cabinet papers, intelligence briefs, and briefing for overseas trips.

There are, however, some areas of specific focus for the year ahead, including developing key partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region, and enhancing political and economic stability in our immediate Pacific neighbourhood.

Last year, Fiji was the challenge of the moment. Unfortunately, it still is.

Our concerns about the motives and ambitions of the Fiji interim government has increased with the backsliding on its commitment to hold elections next year.

Shaping a path back to democracy must be the priority of all Fijians.

But political instability, weak institutions, and human capacity concerns are not unique to Fiji or the Pacific, and such matters occupy a significant portion of the time and attention of a Foreign Minister.

One of the more pleasing aspects of being Foreign Minister relates to New Zealand’s Agency for International Development - NZAID.

In parallel with strengthening the foreign service, the government is committed to increasing reported Overseas Development Assistance to 0.35% of GNI by 2010/11.

On current economic growth projections, that will see overseas development assistance increase by 67 per cent to $660.3 million in 2010/11.

At least half of that assistance will go to our neighbours in the Pacific region, and is targeted at countries with the greatest levels of poverty: Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

We also have significant development partnerships with Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau.

We contribute assistance to Fiji, but currently in a reduced form which excludes direct engagement with government agencies as a result of the December 2006 coup.

It would be wrong to look at these relationships solely in terms of aid – they are far deeper and broader than that.

The Pacific is also a region in which we foster key relationships through critical bilateral partnerships, such as Australia, the United States, Japan, China, ASEAN, and the European Union.

In fact we regularly meet with our counterparts in Australia – formally twice a year and frequently in the margins of regional and multilateral forums – because of the importance of this relationship.

Improving the relationship with the United States has been a high priority over the past two years.

Secretary of State Rice’s visit last month showed how far we have come - to the point where she correctly characterised the relationship as one of “friends and allies”.

This reflects the new security paradigm post 9/11, and our constructive work on the many fronts where we have shared interests such as in the Pacific, in maritime security and in Afghanistan.

There is also a specific multilateral dimension to the work of a Foreign Minister.

On this front, the current year will see greater focus on sustainability, and environmental and resource diplomacy such as climate change and fishing.

This will require effective multilateral diplomacy alongside, and in step with, our bilateral and regional efforts.

Each year we have the opportunity to formally place on record New Zealand’s strong commitment to multilateral diplomacy, from a New Zealand perspective, through our address to the UN General Assembly.

In order to fill this multifaceted Foreign Minister’s role, let’s consider how some of the dynamics work.

There are some in my office who would have me constantly sitting in meetings – meeting all kinds people addressing a myriad of issues.

Some would want me reviewing policy options, Cabinet papers and the like, and there are others who would have me travelling offshore all the time.

Still others want me to concentrate more on my role as Minister for Racing, or Associate Minister for Senior Citizens; and of course in election year there are the challenges of being Leader of New Zealand First.

The point is that filling this role is about achieving a balance of many competing demands – sometime in the face of crises that require swift but considered responses.

The most critical part is getting the balance right.

The role requires a huge degree of co-ordination between the Prime Minister, and her office, and myself and my office.

There is also a significant degree of interaction with other minister's offices to achieve our policy objectives.

My office is staffed with officials who carry out many of these functions. Some focus on foreign policy; some on political dimensions. Others look after the relationship with ministerial offices, and some deal with speeches and media.

Each adds to the overall effectiveness of the role of Foreign Minister.

But at the end of the day, diplomacy works best when the personal relationships are built on respect and trust.

That is ultimately the secret of being an effective foreign Minister – get the relationships right and the rest will follow.

All the policy papers in the world are no substitute for effective relationships.

That is not to say that there is no place for thorough policy development.

In New Zealand we are well served on this front by a competent and effective ministry. You will hear from some of them throughout your studies.

Serving as Foreign Minister is both an honour and a privilege. Any chance to represent one's country as its primary advocate must be viewed as such.

Hopefully today you have a little more insight into the role, beyond the romantic, but generally false, notions put forward in some quarters.