From chapter 8 of the memoir Compass Points

We returned from Rome at the beginning of 1977 and settled into the house in Rutland Way for the third time. The work was stimulating: I was made head of the America-Australia Division. This built on the base of my United States experience but led in new directions too.

The US relationship imposed itself rather quickly. President Carter had just been sworn in when our prime minister, Rob Muldoon, had too many drinks on a trip to Australia (I hope — perhaps he would have spoken like this anyway, in vino veritas) and on disembarking in Sydney made comments to the media about Carter being just a peanut farmer and references to the president’s beer-swilling brother Billy. Great start.

New Zealand’s status as a strong ally of the US had led to something of a tradition that our political leader was rather higher up the list for a visit to a new president than our size alone might suggest. Not this time! We searched for a breakthrough, not that the comments made any difference to the relationship for practical purposes — officials in both capitals carried on the multitude of co-ordination activities as usual — but opportunities relating to the prime minister were elusive until the US embassy invited him to open its new building in Thorndon, around mid-year. We spent more time than usual crafting a speech. John Wood, the Foreign Affairs officer in the Prime Minister’s Department, warned not to expect too much: ‘He will not apologise or back down.’ But I felt Muldoon could not be impervious to the situation he had created, and would be constructive and conciliatory, and so it proved to be.

Much work followed at all levels. The Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Frank Corner, used his close relationship with the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to further the case in behind the scenes diplomacy. An invitation for an official visit to Washington DC eventually came through and in October 1977 we were off.

I couldn’t sleep on the plane to Los Angeles, nor the next day to Washington. I began to realise the seriousness of sleep deprivation. We were met with due pomp at the airport and moved into Blair House, and I said to a journo on the team that I was a bit buggered and was heading for bed early. ‘Hey, take one of these,’ he said. ‘Help you sleep.’ Indeed. I had never taken a sleeping pill before. Since I always woke with the daylight I didn’t put on an alarm … and awoke at 9.30 a.m. the next day. I was meant to accompany the prime minister on his first call, on the Secretary of Defence at the Pentagon, at 9 a.m. Bernie Galvin, bless him, covered, and after that everything went right, although I know John Wood and I were scrambling with the prime minister’s speech to the National Press Club right up until the time the big black cars came … something about biomass, to show we were up with the play on green energy futures.

The highlight was the meeting with the president at the White House. We assembled in the Rose Garden. Carter came and delivered a speech of welcome to a group of officials and curious tourists. It said all the right things about New Zealand … a strong democratic tradition, fought bravely alongside its friends in several wars, ANZUS allies … he didn’t quite say we punched above our weight but came close enough. ‘And Mr Prime Minister,’ he concluded, ‘you are known to have taken a strong interest in my administration since its earliest days in office.’ The tourist audience took that in its stride as just another favourable comment. But I was standing beside an old State Department colleague — we looked at each other and just about cracked up with laughter. It was superbly done. Peanuts and Billy were signed off. President Carter then put his arm around the prime minister’s shoulder and escorted him as though he was an old and trusted friend up the steps into the White House.

We sat around the cabinet table. After preliminaries, Mr Muldoon started on the familiar theme of New Zealand’s role in the South Pacific. After all, we look a bit more meaningful if we can say we hold influence over, can bring to the party even, that vast swathe of the South Pacific Ocean that lies north of and around us, even if it is only peopled by tiny, scattered, island populations. A fresh point was that the Law of the Sea negotiations had been completed to the point that coastal countries could claim their new 200-mile economic zones in the seas around them. We had prepared a map that showed these zones around each island state and territory. Right across much of the South Pacific they touched or overlapped. My, what an impressive patch of the earth’s surface to, well, be able to influence. Richard Seddon would have been proud of us.

The prime minister pulled a copy out of his jacket pocket and laid it before the president. Carter gave it the briefest of glances and pushed it back saying, ‘I’ve seen it.’ I never quite found the time or courage afterwards to ask the American officials if they had seen our map, which meant they probably had our whole brief, or whether they had the foresight to prepare one of their own for the president’s brief.

The Cold War and the Sino-Soviet dispute were passed over for a central New Zealand concern, cheese. The Americans were limiting their imports of this from New Zealand. Carter listened politely then said (in effect), ‘I wonder, Mr Prime Minister, why it is your country always wants to send to us the one sort of cheese we have in super-abundance? Many countries in Europe and elsewhere send to us all the cheese they like — camembert, blue, gouda, Swiss, whatever. But we have so much cheddar. Why don’t you make the other sorts and then send as much as you wish?’ There was no real answer.

My thoughts about our meat exports in my days in Washington ten years earlier, and in Rome, came to mind. I felt again how slow our agriculture sector was to move from a production to a consumer-driven focus, whereby we could move up the value chain. I can still think that today. But I also knew that it was easy for me to have such thoughts and that if I was a farmer and an exporter I’d probably be the same as the real farmers, and find that making and marketing specialty milk and meat products to be rather difficult. As country representatives we had to make the best of the cards we were dealt to play with.

It was an intensive time with meetings with all the cabinet secretaries of interest to New Zealand, and ended on a high note at a dinner hosted by Ambassador Corner with an American delegation led by Vice President Mondale, a marvellous speech by the prime minister written by Witi Ihimaera, and a burst of singing from the whole room.

I stayed on a day after the official rounds and caught up with Bob Packwood in the senate, before making a weary way home. The experience with Carter impressed me. He was thoroughly well informed, warm and intelligent. I lightly followed his performance over his term, as he made difficult decisions not to commission a new fleet of B52 bombers, but to stay tough with the Soviet Union by installing intermediate-range missiles in Europe, to give the Panama Canal to Panama, to sign the SALT 2 agreement with the Soviet Union, to strengthen US-China relations through his personal relationship with Deng, to negotiate the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt and a fair few other things, and have always thought him a most under-rated president.

Also in that year it was New Zealand’s turn to host an ANZUS Council meeting, and my division was at the heart of that. The Vietnam war had ceased to be the focus of interest as it had been at the Washington ANZUS meeting, but the Cold War was still a foremost preoccupation as was the opening to China. I was still fully in support of ANZUS co-operation and of American foreign policy objectives, and wrote a very positive speech saying so which the Foreign Minister Brian Talboys was happy with. Perhaps deep in the background was the surreptitious hope that New Zealand’s loyalty might lead to some trade advantage.

Again I was impressed with the abilities and openness of the US delegation, led by Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher. It was impossible not to feel at the end of the sessions that New Zealand was among a very few countries so well up-to-date with the global strategic situation in which we had to make our way and our future.

Late in the year before, the United States government had told us that agricultural inspections of its naval ships would have to cease. It felt that permitting agriculture inspectors to come on board to look at foodstuffs in the hold to see if they posed a biosecurity risk would be the thin end of the wedge for countries wanting to send inspectors on board to see whether there were nuclear weapons or not. The latter would obviously violate the US military doctrine of ‘neither confirm nor deny’ in respect of such weapons. Privately I found the argument that one form of inspection would lead to a hard-to-resist other form of inspection to be implausible, but that was not up for debate. The Americans were firm that the meat lockers of their ships were no longer open to foreigners. We set up an interdepartmental group led by our Ministry of Agriculture, which was responsible for the inspections, to mull over a response. There was no political imperative imposed on this, but if there had been it would, reflecting the mood of the time, almost certainly have been that US warships must be allowed to continue to visit.

After I’d been two or three months in the job a US embassy official called at my office. Washington and CINCPAC (the Commander-in-Chief of US forces in the Pacific based in Honolulu) were getting restless. There could only be one answer, he thought, and why was the New Zealand government taking so long to give it? I gave him a homily to the effect that biosecurity — although I’m not sure that we used that word back then — was for New Zealand, a country dependent on its agriculture exports, a strategic imperative as was nuclear deterrence for the United States. I was sure we would come up with a good answer. To pressurise us for a quick reply might risk the wrong answer, there were many complicated issues to work through … could he please say to his seniors we were taking it seriously but needed more time.

Eventually we were able to provide a solution that satisfied everyone, the ships kept coming and our agriculture industry remained free of whatever threat may have been posed to it from this source. I have remained a great believer in buying time for difficult policy issues where there is no immediate threat — and wish our policies towards American nuclear ships visits in 1984–85 had reflected the desirability of this.

After our Washington posting and then this year of renewed engagement, I felt that the United States was in my blood and so my involvement with it did not end with these events in 1977. But much later, in the 1990s and 2000s, I came increasingly to re-evaluate the country and its policies. However divided it had been in the 1960s, with the revolution in social attitudes, Vietnam and civil rights, there was something more ominous about the later divisiveness. In the 1960s I found congressmen willing to cross the floor to support a bi-partisan approach, and to socialise outside the floor of the chambers. That ended in the ’90s; indeed I saw an article around 1997 asserting that cross-party socialising had ended, and male Republican and Democrat senators and congressmen would not use the same toilets, and Bob Packwood confirmed that this was the case.

It was roughly similar between the branches of government. In Catching up with Bob Packwood after 40 years. Portland, Oregon, 2010. In the 1960s I had been impressed with the balance of power between the three arms — the executive, congress and the judiciary — and how each ultimately recognised it had a vested interest in making the system work. In the 1990s and the 2000s there was increasing tension between them and ‘gridlock’, sadly, become the popular descriptor.

The reasons were complex and not core to my story. I felt a turning point in terms of ideological inflexibility came with Newt Gingrich, Republican leader in the House, and the surge of the fundamentalist religious right, following Clinton’s 1992 election. It was much exacerbated by the later Tea Party faction, galvanised by Obama’s election. But all this must have reflected deeper social trends which seem to date back to the 1970s.

Among the leading culprits was a reaction to the perceived liberal excesses of the 1960s and, even deeper and slower, a response to growing economic inequality. Most studies of this acknowledge that the post-war period of the 1950s and ’60s were golden years when wealth and jobs were well-distributed and inequality declined. There are quite precise dates around 1972 when this started to reverse, when lower-middle incomes began to stagnate and remained stagnant for decades following, and when the wealth accumulation of the top few percent grew enormously. That (before the 2016 presidential elections resulting in Trump’s victory) is still on a slow burn, with unpredictable outcomes yet to be seen.

Externally too there have been sub-optimal changes in American policies, or perhaps more accurately a new environment in which to look at them, and I see that great country as wasting its ‘unipolar moment’ as the world’s only super-power. It has not adjusted well to the end of the Cold War, to the appalling attack of 9/11 on the twin towers in New York, or to the rise of China. The American shift to a more doctrinaire right-wing position is not serving it well, although I still believe it capable of exercising a more subtle and soft-power approach to its international relations, as President Obama has tried. Perhaps it was always self-interested and addicted to hard power and that these things were more accepted and desirable in the Cold War situation that I had worked in. So today I do not feel quite the same about the United States and if we were still in ANZUS and I were writing a speech for one of its meetings it would be a rather different text from those of the 1960s and ’70s.

Never in my days working in foreign policy did I feel as strongly about an issue as I did in the early 2000s when the United States was threatening to invade Iraq. I could not believe it could make such a wrong call, as everyone at lunches repeatedly heard. I thought Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, would be the levelhead among those around Bush, and was appalled when he made a speech to the United Nations arguing for such an intervention. But the invasion went ahead, with entirely predictable consequences. It has been followed by others almost as bad, in respect of Libya, Syria and elsewhere. It is one of the continuing difficulties of being an ally of the United States that it makes so many disastrous decisions. It is unlikely to be sure-footed in dealing with the biggest of global issues, the rise of China.

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