• Professionals Do It Best

    The ruthless and self-serving use of the powers of patronage has been one of the hallmarks of the Trump Presidency. His purpose has sometimes been – as in the case of his appointments to the Supreme Court and other courts – to extend his political influence beyond the legislative sphere and into the judiciary and from the present into the future; at other times – as in the case of his appointments to ambassadorships – he has sought to bind his supporters to him by rewarding them for their loyalty (and often for their financial contributions) and so that, no doubt, others will be tempted by the prospect of a similar pay-back if they follow suit.

    The downsides of this practice include the real possibility that completely unqualified and unsuitable people are appointed to positions of responsibility – and there is another risk. The power of the executive in a modern country is already great enough without placing in their hands a further means by which they can control decisions taken by individuals – the hope of preferment could well inhibit a Congressman or an MP, for example, from defying the government whip.

    But these techniques are not unique to Donald Trump. Many governments across the globe – and New Zealand is no exception – have found it useful to use diplomatic appointments as rewards and inducements, and as a means of ensuring that loyalty to the cause – whatever it may be – can be guaranteed. Rather more justifiably, political appointments from the senior ranks of the governing party are sometimes made in order to assure the recipient country that the envoy enjoys the confidence of the appointing government.

    Reports that the term of former National cabinet minister, Tim Groser, as our Ambassador in Washington is not to be renewed suggest that this particular instance of a political appointment to a top diplomatic post has not been judged a success. The decision may reflect an assessment of Groser’s personal suitability for the task or of his lack of success in performing it – he failed to gain exemption for New Zealand from Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminium, for example – but it may mean that there are at last second thoughts about the wisdom of appointing people with little or no professional expertise to take on such important responsibilities.

    Tim Groser had admittedly served at one point (without any previous diplomatic experience) as the Ambassador to Indonesia and was an experienced trade negotiator – and he was eventually an unsuccessful candidate for the post of Director General of the World Trade Organisation. His appointment as Ambassador to the U.S., however, seems to have reflected the view of the then foreign minister, Murray McCully, that professional experience in the sometimes arcane world of diplomacy was not a necessary quality in the holder of this important post.

    McCully made no secret of that conviction and, indeed, went further – proposing that it was actually preferable to appoint to ambassadorships almost anyone other than a career diplomat; it was a view that, it may be surmised, did not go down well in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which McCully purported to lead.

    We now have, of course, a new government and a new Minister of Foreign Affairs. The decision on Groser’s renewal suggests that Winston Peters may have a more favourable view of the abilities of the senior professionals in his department than did his predecessor, though we will not know that for certain until a new appointment is made.

    If there has indeed been a change of heart, it should be applauded. I should immediately confess that I write from the viewpoint of one who served for some years in the British Diplomatic Service and who had the opportunity of observing at close quarters the demands made on the skills and experience of top diplomats. Representing the interests of your country requires more than a bit of glad-handing and wining and dining your hosts.

    It is not, however, just professional fellow-feeling that leads me to the conclusion that a country would be foolish to entrust its diplomatic representation to anyone other than the best qualified people. Protecting and advancing our national interests in the international sphere demands the best skills we can muster. This is no job for amateurs.  A more hard-headed approach is long overdue.

    Bryan Gould
    7 August 2018

2 Comments

  1. Jon says: August 9, 2018 at 7:59 amReply

    So university graduates should be our leaders and blue collar people should step back. You still have not worked out why trump got elected you bigot.

  2. Brian says: August 13, 2018 at 11:07 pmReply

    Yes, we need people skilled in the black arts of compromise, backmail, and are able to carry out colour revolutions against goverments we don’t like ,and leaders and people we demonise.We need people skilled in looting others resources and killing anyone who gets in the way. We need people who lie as a matter of course, and are skilled propogandist and disseminating disinformation.Yes these people wil be working for a small elite at our own expense.