Eggs benedict and our humanitarian myth

At New York’s Turtle Bay, where the United Nations building stands, there’s a breakfast club for Security Council diplomats to meet and start the day with a meal and a chat. It has become quite a tradition, and it is all thanks to New Zealand.

The bringing together of some of the most powerful diplomats in the world for a breakfast may seem trivial, but it is no easy feat. Indeed, if it brings the five permanent members of the Security Council, the P5—France, the UK & US, Russia and China—down to earth to mingle with the non-permanent member states, then that’s a good thing. Because, as protocol stands, the P5 has a huge amount of power over the council —the power to veto resolutions, for example—something that commentators and officials alike say needs serious reform.

The eating arrangements are an example of how New Zealand, represented at the UN by Ambassador Gerard van Bohemen, conducts diplomacy. We don’t have the material strength, resources or the cohesive abilities that the P5 have, but we can still persuade and influence the seemingly little things—in this instance the interpersonal relationships of diplomats—in a bid to change the bigger picture; a practice that political theorists call ‘soft power’.

Our two-year term on the Security Council, which comes to an end this year, has not seen the unity and progress one might hope to see at the premier international body. Geopolitical interests always trump having eggs benedict with your colleagues. Despite this, there’s still room for improvement regarding the disconnect between how New Zealand views itself on the world stage and our actions.

Yes, we’re about 15th in the world in terms of total foreign aid. Official development assistance was US$440 million last year, according to the OECD, 0.27 percent of our gross national income. Our annual contribution to the UN budget varies at around US$10-20 million. Money is not enough.

To mythological effect, New Zealand has branded itself as a professional humanitarian. This may have held true when we were readily preventing atrocities in East Timor and Bougainville in the 1990s, but, since the 2010s, our UN peacekeeping contributions have all but disappeared. There’s now only around ten Kiwis working under the blue UN flag, despite having adequate personnel and resources. This year, 21 billion dollars has been earmarked for upgrading the Defence Force and it’s not as if there are less UN peacekeeping operations the world over. What happened to the renowned and skilled peacekeeping capabilities that our government still touts?

A top analyst at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) once told me that they should simply be called the Ministry of Global Market Integration; the ministry is a effectively a PR contractor for exporters. Other staffers have echoed this sentiment and it’s no secret that “export markets streams,” “market access,” and “regional economic integration,” are the highest priority on MFAT’s agenda.

Where is New Zealand’s active values-based humanitarian foreign policy? Here’s a place where we could start: MFAT and Cabinet should immediately start putting pressure on Australia over their refugee policy and offshore detention centres. Recent reports show our cousins over the Tasman have blatantly disregarded human rights and there’s plenty of tools that MFAT could use to persuade change or, at least, send a strong signal. 

This article first appeared in Issue 21, 2016.
Posted 10:32am Sunday 4th September 2016 by George Elliott.