If you ever played word association games with the name “ Tim Groser” it would normally take a long, long time for anyone to suggest him as an ideal match for the word “diplomatic.” That’s why his retirement from Parliament earlier this week and his simultaneous appointment as the next New Zealand ambassador to Washington isn’t just surprising. It’s more like a disaster in waiting.
Sure, diplomacy isn’t always about the use of guile and charm. Sometimes, being agreeable really isn’t the point. Even being arrogant isn’t always a negative aspect of the skillset. No one ever thought that say, France’s former Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin was shy and insecure about his own gifts – but unlike our new man in Washington, the arrogance and the abrasiveness weren’t de Villepin’s default setting. With Groser, they tend to be, and there’s not a lot going on upstairs to compensate for it.
These qualities have already served New Zealand poorly. Famously during the TPP negotiations, Groser and his Japanese counterpart Akira Amaru formed a mutual dislike very early on, based in part on this kind of arrogance from Groser, as reported on more than one occasion in the Japanese press. Here’s an example of Groser in action:
New Zealand changed its bargaining strategy at a ministerial meeting in Atlanta on the evening of Oct. 2 as Groser said Wellington would accept the U.S. proposal for pharmaceutical data and the start of deliberations on dairy products after those on drugs. Other negotiators were puzzled by the sudden change in New Zealand’s stance. A lawmaker of the ruling [Japmese] Liberal Democratic Party, who was in Atlanta to monitor the ministerial negotiations, frowned in confusion, and said, “I’m afraid New Zealand will make a bargain on dairy trade with the U.S. and thrust imports on Japan.”
In disregard of concern on the Japanese side, Groser watched a Rugby World Cup game on television in a bar in Atlanta on Oct. 3 with Malcolm Bailey, 57, chairman of the New Zealand Dairy Companies Association, and other people. Australia, New Zealand’s partner in the negotiations, beat England in the match. This was the second consecutive day that Groser watched the rugby tournament. Negotiation watchers wondered if he intended to demonstrate that New Zealand would not give an inch in talks on dairy trade.
Revealing the background of the strategic change, Mike Petersen, 52, New Zealand’s special agricultural trade envoy, said he thought the U.S. would not pay attention to dairy trade before concluding a deal on drugs. In short, New Zealand tried to do the U.S. a favour in advance, in order to pursue a return on dairy trade –while encouraging the U.S. and Australia to settle the question of drugs.
Now this would have been brilliant tactics if it had worked. But it didn’t. All Groser achieved by this rugby-watching snub to the Japanese was that he seriously offended them – thereby deepening an existent rift with Amari – and won virtually nothing substantive in return from the Americans for his goofy, unilateral concession to them. What a tactical genius. Make this man the new ambassador to Washington this instant !
That’s the problem. The Washington office is not some bauble to be handed around at random to this or that senior member of the National Party caucus – Murray McCully, Tim Groser et al – who happens to be on the market fora cushy retirement niche. It is an important post when it comes to presenting New Zealand’s case to a powerful ally, and it calls for someone able to recognise and respond to the signals that are being sent by others.
Yet no-one who has ever seen Groser in action has ever seen him demonstrate such skills. Think back a couple of years to when Groser was last bidding for another well paid sinecure. At the time, there were several reasons why Groser didn’t win any support from other countries when he tried to secure the leadership of the World Trade Organisation. Lets just say, he didn’t have a lot of admirers waiting in line to lobby for him.
In sum, there is precious little in Groser’s track record to suggest that the man’s arrogance is something that simply has to be endured, on the basis that it has achieved results for this country. It hasn’t. This is a truly terrible appointment, and the career diplomats at MFAT must be spitting tacks.
I guess that issues of tact and diplomacy are personally to the fore right now. I’m typing this in a tiny Japanese apartment in Kyoto after a week or so of solid immersion in Japan’s culture of public politeness. It takes many forms, in the public spaces that Japan’s millions negotiate, every day. Why has Japan developed these intricate social codes of politeness, when China – with even more millions – patently hasn’t? That’s a question that increasingly bothers the Japanese, as they try to deal with the influx of (what are to them) rude, greedy and boorish tourists from the new China. Other clumsy tourists from elsewhere can simply be dismissed as well-meaning idiots. Not quite so, it seems, when it comes to the Chinese.
I’m not saying such skills are transferable. Yet watching a train conductor bow as they leave a carriage, or observing the complex rules of elevator etiquette –standing in the right place, thanking one’s fellow citizen who has been working the buttons etc is attractive to encounter, and useful to learn from. You could hardly run across a social ethos that has less in common with “She’ll be right, mate.” Much of the time, that’s our Kiwi code for demanding tolerance for our own ineptitude. We assume good will and tolerance from others, as our right; in Japan it needs to be earned, and daily demonstrated. Obviously, I’m not talking about the hierarchies at work or the categories of social exclusion – which are a quite different story – but about the negotiation of public space, among strangers.
Could Tim Groser learn anything from this culture of informal street diplomacy? It is probably too late for him now. Yet Japan might have at least one useful phrase for him to keep in mind. The other day amidst the youth fashion parade on Takeshita St in Harajuku, I came across a stall run by a couple of punks. These guys were no innovators. They were selling only old Ramones and Slipknot T-Shirts, but they were punks man, and they did have a fine line in tourist baiting. On their sales placards, they had inscribed handwritten messages to the hordes of people passing by. Such as “F*** Off, Foreigner !” Or “ No Photos ! F*** Off!” And “What You Don’t Understand ? F*** Off!” Plus my favourite: “Kiss Your President’s Anus!”
I’ve never thought of saying that before to an annoying American… but if Tim Groser thinks it might come in handy in Washington, be my guest.