Casually wasting diplomatic capital

March 29, 2018

Is the government deliberately setting out to upset international friends?

It started with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s repeatedly sticking her nose into Australia’s affairs over Manus Island refugees.

She followed up by making the mistake of telling a story about Donald Trump mistaking her for Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s wife which she ought not to have shared.

Then came the reluctance by her and Foreign Minister Winston Peters to condemn Russia for the nerve agent poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

And now New Zealand is an international laughing stock over the PM’s claim we have no undeclared Russian spies here.

New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and foreign affairs minister, Winston Peters, say they would expel Russian spies from the country, if there were any.

More than 100 Russian diplomats alleged to be spies in western countries have been told to return to Moscow, in response to the use of a chemical weapon in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a former Russia/UK double agent, and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England on 4 March.

The New Zealand government has condemned the attack and supports the international action, but says there are no such “Russian intelligence agents” in the country. . . 

The ABC explains the difference between declared and undeclared spies:

. . . Spy is the conventional term for someone who gathers intelligence overseas, without letting their host country know what they are doing.

They often present themselves as diplomats and work out of embassies, alongside declared intelligence officers.

The difference between declared and undeclared intelligence officers is that the legitimate ones present their credentials to their host country and make it known they are there to make contact and to formally share mutually beneficial information.

Spies appear on an embassy’s list of diplomats, but they are involved in gathering other intelligence.

According to Ian Lincoln, a former diplomat who is now president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (New South Wales), spies have the same objectives as intelligence officers but use different methods, such as gathering intelligence through unofficial contacts, sometimes by finding a weakness in an individual.

John Blaxland, a professor of international security and intelligence studies, says undeclared intelligence officers pretend to comply with regular protocols, appearing at events and doing other things that make them look like regular diplomats, but on the side, they are carrying out a range of other activities. . . 

Richard Harman’s Politik morning e-newsletter says:

There has been no comment on whether any of the 16 staff with diplomatic status at the Russian Embassy [ in Wellington] may be undeclared intelligence officers — but it is a comparatively  large staff for a country which would seem to have only peripheral interests here..
In comparison’ Australia has 13; China 23 and the USA, 48. 

David Lange’s government burned off friends with its anti-nuclear policy but that was a matter of principle.

This government’s stand doesn’t look to be done on principle:

Whether or not we are seeing the emergence of a new Peters Doctrine is moot. We shall have to wait to see. But it’s curious that Labour has been dragged into this line of thinking.

It may be that Ardern & Co have an instinctive willingness to not necessarily fall in behind the great powers of the West. But is this really the time? Given the personalities in charge of what can be loosely called the West – especially President Donald Trump – there may well be a time quite soon when we want to play an independent hand. There may soon be issues where we want to stand apart from the US and other Western (or Five Eyes) allies on issues of real importance.

So why waste your card playing it now? Why raise the eyebrows – and perhaps the ire – of our traditional friends over this case? New Zealand bases its foreign policy on the international rule of law, so when there is a global consensus that Russia has blatantly and murderously broken those rules, why would we not rush to stand alongside those protesting such an action? Surely this is an opportunity to earn show some solidarity with Britain, the US and others, given that down the track we may want to spend some diplomatic capital distancing ourselves from them.

It seems a careless, overly casual and unnecessary waste of diplomatic capital; one I suspect this government will soon regret.

If the government was acting on principle its words and actions might be understood.

But rather than principle, it looks like it’s fooling round with foreign policy, carelessly and casually wasting hard-won diplomatic capital.

In doing so it’s dangerously out of step with both security and trading partners in a time when the foreign and trading environments are anything but benign.


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