From Chapter 9 of the memoir Compass Points

I have sometimes felt, looking back, that diplomats can work for years, say on a bilateral relationship or a topic of United Nations consideration, and not have an identifiable achievement at the end of it, only a constructive but ill-defined contribution. It is hard to get full recognition for that. It is a positive side of this that the New Zealand foreign service is good at building up small credits with other countries, something like the way the Japanese do at a personal level.

There was always debate over whether professional diplomats were needed in the top jobs overseas, or whether these could be done as well or better by politicians or business people appointed to be an ambassador. The odds favour the professional, in that they are more likely to know the range of avenues available or the pitfalls to avoid. But that was not universally true. Some outside appointees did great jobs, as I have noted with my experience with Phil Holloway in Rome — and a few career professionals were, if not incompetent, then at least lazy.

I have recently seen the assertion in Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s autobiography that ‘diplomats, for their day-to-day work in foreign capitals, rely upon ministerial visits to open doors and develop relationships …’ That is a singular perspective and I hope the descriptions of my own experience show a different situation. Ministerial visits had their own merits, but they were not needed for these purposes.

It became apparent over a variety of embassy and high commission experiences that everyone in the office, from the third secretary to the ambassador, had useful roles to play in making New Zealand’s case or obtaining information we were seeking. The notion that you need to go to the top to get decisions is simply untrue in very many cases: the person at the top usually knows how to delegate, knows how their own national decision-making systems work, or knows when not to make a decision until they have advice. Plenty of significant decisions are made by middle-ranking officers of the governments involved.

The autobiography of an eminent Australian diplomat of the 1960s and ’70s, Alan Renouf, dwells on the regrettable tendency of embassies to develop into microcosms of their home capital, with all that that implied for bureaucratic rivalries. He thought in Tokyo the US embassy was a little Washington and that the larger Australian embassies in various countries could never throw off the scent of Canberra rivalries. It is part of my good feelings about working in New Zealand’s overseas relations that I never felt there was any issue with that. Each department represented in an embassy had its own starting point and perspective, but it always ended up quite readily that these differences contributed to a constructive agreed approach, or to be irrelevant to higher policy outside of the specialised field.

I have also not felt that representing a small and isolated country was a constraint of any great substance. Partly we represented an unusual sort of neutrality: despite our very strong alliance commitments, through ANZUS, SEATO, the Five Power Defence Arrangements, the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence structure and the like, we always cushioned this by a willingness to listen to other parties, to take a principled approach to most issues and to pursue our own interests as we perceived them pretty openly and without too much intrigue and deception. Our smallness reinforced our nonthreatening power base and actually helped with this. It softened our developed country status relative to the developing and nonaligned countries. This was further fostered by our odd man out status within the developed world, and our symmetry with developing countries, because of our economic dependence on commodity trading.

Perhaps our national characteristics of a sense of fairness and a certain commitment to egalitarianism and the equality of nations helped too. For one reason or another we were about as nonaligned as an aligned country could be and yet within the aligned we were right in the inner circle. It is a tribute to our foreign policy makers and implementers that we were able to walk so confidently either side of that fence as circumstances required. And there is power of a sort to be exercised through good ideas and values, independently of size.

Much later, reflecting on the satisfaction of having worked in diplomacy, I realised that much of it must have rested on the pillars of New Zealand itself, a country you could be proud to represent. Its competence and values were easy to promote, always defensible and appreciated by most other countries. I cannot imagine getting satisfaction from representing a country where misrule, corruption and other negatives were the order of the day.
A lasting benefit has been friendships, many of which I still maintain. I am very lucky that colleagues from those days overlook that I jumped ship early and much later are still comfortable with including me in a variety of their activities. It is always refreshing and agreeable to be with them.

Neil Plimmer