The Washington Diplomat / August 2008
By Larry Luxner
On his office wall, Roy Ferguson has a framed picture of Manaia, one of only 42 kiwi birds living in captivity outside New Zealand. Manaia was born at Washington's National Zoo on Feb. 13, 2006 — the same day Ferguson arrived here as New Zealand's new ambassador to the United States.
"I took that as an auspicious sign," he says, chuckling at the coincidence.
In his two years representing New Zealand's 4.2 million "kiwis," as inhabitants on the remote Pacific nation are affectionately known, Ferguson has made it his mission to solidify already-strong bilateral ties — and to publicize New Zealand's ambitious effort to fight climate change while achieving ultimate green status over the next 20 years.
"Our prime minister has set a very bold vision of New Zealand being the first truly sustainable society on Earth," he told the Diplomat during a leisurely interview at the New Zealand Embassy on Observatory Circle. "The important thing is getting policies into place to support that."
To that end, New Zealand announced last year that by 2025, the country aims to generate 90% of its electricity needs from renewable sources; New Zealand is currently at 66%, with energy being produced mainly from hydroelectric, geothermal and wind energy.
"We also want to reduce our use of transport fuels by 50% per-capita by 2040," Ferguson said, noting that New Zealand emits more than its share of greenhouse gases. "But it's very heavily skewed toward methane and other gases that animals give off — basically cows and sheep belching."
That should be the worst of New Zealand's problems — gassy sheep.
Located nearly 9,000 miles and 18 hours by air from Washington, this pristine, Colorado-sized parliamentary republic is one of the most isolated nations in the world, yet undeniably one of its luckiest.
Sparsely populated and blessed with natural beauty ranging from snowcapped mountains to spectacular fjords, English-speaking New Zealand has no outside enemies and virtually no political unrest. According to Ferguson, "Gallup recently did a poll on people's state of happiness around the world, and New Zealand scored second only to Finland."
In its 2008 Quality of Life Index, International Living magazine ranked New Zealand eighth in the world, trailing only France, Switzerland, the United States, Luxembourg, Germany, Australia and Italy. The UN Development Program ranks it the 20th most livable country, and in 2007 its people enjoyed annual per-capita income of about $26,700 — which puts it 26th worldwide, according to the International Monetary Fund.
New Zealand's leadership extends to disability issues. On May 6, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon bestowed upon New Zealand the annual Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award. He noted that the country's comprehensive disability strategy led New Zealand to adopt sign language as its third official language in 1996 — along with English and Maori, an indigenous language spoken by 4% of the population.
"As a result of these measures, New Zealand has become a model for the world on disability issues," said Ban. "Your example strengthens our resolve to ensure human rights and development for all — especially through the full and meaningful participation of persons with disabilities in every level of society, from the local to the global."
Yet all is not paradise in the land of the kiwi. The country's aggressive efforts to slash the use of fossil fuels and make New Zealand "carbon-neutral" by 2012 have run up against resistance from taxpayers unwilling to foot the bill in the face of high mortgage rates and skyrocketing food and oil prices.
In early May, Prime Minister Helen Clark announced a two-year delay to including transport in the flagship emissions trading scheme — a move even some of her most ardent supporters see as environmental backpedaling.
New Zealand has even gotten caught up in the problems of the Middle East.
In 2004, two alleged Mossad spies were caught in the country with fraudulent passports, leading New Zealand to freeze diplomatic relations with Israel for 18 months. Shortly after, vandals desecrated a Jewish cemetery and spray-painted a synagogue with swastikas, in what local Jewish leaders said was the worst act of anti-Semitism in New Zealand's history.
"We are far away, but it's an illusion to think geographic isolation can protect us from the world's problems," said Ferguson, a Fulbright scholar with a master's degree in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania. "This goes back to French nuclear testing in the Pacific in the '70s and '80s, which sensitized us to issues concerning nuclear weapons."
In 1985, French intelligence agents sank the Rainbow Warrior — flagship of the Greenpeace fleet — in Auckland harbor, to prevent Greenpeace activists from interfering with a nuclear test on the Polynesian island of Moruroa. The scandal eventually led to the arrests of two agents and the resignation of France's defense minister — and damaged New Zealand's ties with France for years afterward.
"I suppose we could just sit back and not worry about climate change. We could all just move up to the mountains if the sea rises. But instead, we feel we must set an example and be responsible international citizens," said the ambassador, noting that "the hole in the ozone layer caused by man's use of CFCs first appeared over Antarctica, and even today, when you go to New Zealand, you'll find that he rays of the sun are much more fierce."
Asked to name Wellington's top foreign-policy objective, Ferguson didn't hesitate.
"We want to safeguard our security," he said. "That means working pro-actively with other members of the international community to uphold international law and work for the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
As such, New Zealand has offered to contribute an undetermined sum of money to an energy assistance package negotiated with North Korea as part of the six-party talks aimed at getting Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons.
This is a subject Ferguson knows especially well, having won accreditation to Pyongyang in 2001, toward the end of his three-year posting in Seoul. The unprecedented arrangement allowed Ferguson to visit North Korea for five days, a country he diplomatically suggests has "a huge amount of potential."
On the economic front, New Zealand hopes to improve its trade flows, which he says explains why it's been "quite aggressive" in supporting the Doha round of trade talks.
And one of New Zealand's biggest trading partners is the United States, which ranks second only to Australia in overall importance. Last year, trade between the two allies came to $8 billion; top exports to the U.S. market are beef (most of which gets mixed into hamburgers), milk protein concentrates, lamb, wine and fruits.
China is also an increasingly important customer for New Zealand, which Ferguson proudly says was the first Western country to negotiate a free-trade agreement with Beijing.
At the same time, he insists his government isn't overlooking China's dubious track record on human rights — particularly its support of the military dictatorship in Burma and its recent crackdown against pro-independence supporters in Tibet.
"We're taking a consistent stance. We are concerned about human rights everywhere," he said. "Obviously, we want a good, constructive relationship with China, in our dialogue with the Chinese we have raised Tibet and other issues. But the reality is that the leverage a small country like New Zealand has is limited."
Since 1999, New Zealand has been governed by the left-leaning Clark, who last year was named by Forbes magazine as the 38th most powerful female in the world.
Ferguson said Clark's gender shouldn't surprise anyone, considering that New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote, back in 1893.
"This is our second female prime minister," he said. "She's very well-known and respected around the world, though for New Zealanders, we are used to having women in senior positions. Our chief justice is a woman, our former governor-general was a woman, and the head of our largest public company was a woman."
Yet Clark clearly won't go down in history as President Bush's favorite head of state. In 2003, the prime minister — who protested the Vietnam War as a teenager — publicly suggested that the Iraq war would never have happened if Democratic candidate Al Gore had won the presidency in 2000.
Clark later apologized to Bush for that comment, though in late 2006, on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, she declared that the U.S.-led invasion had made the world less safe from terrorism than before.
"We didn't agree with the decision to go into Iraq, although we made it clear that we'd be prepared to help with reconstruction afterwards," said Ferguson, commenting on the rift. "I think it's fair to say that there was some tension about the fact we didn't go into Iraq, but both sides have worked hard at strengthening our relations over the last two or three years, and we now have a very good relationship with the administration."
That, despite Washington's 1986 suspension of its security obligations to New Zealand under the 1951 ANZUS treaty, following the election of a Labor government committed to banning nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered warships from the country's ports.
"Even after President George H.W. Bush's 1991 announcement that U.S. surface ships do not normally carry nuclear weapons, New Zealand's legislation prohibiting visits of nuclear-powered ships continues to preclude a bilateral security alliance with the United States," according to a fact sheet issued by the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. "The legislation enjoys broad public and political support in New Zealand. The United States would welcome New Zealand's reassessment of its legislation to permit that country's return to full ANZUS cooperation."
Meanwhile, New Zealand has deployed troops in Afghanistan, where Ferguson says "we were one of the early contributors to a provincial reconstruction team." It also has 181 peacekeeping troops in Timor-Leste, working in an Australian-led mission to assist a force of more than 1,000 UN policemen to maintain security in the former Indonesian territory.
In addition, the country supports peacekeeping troops in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, southern Lebanon and the troubled Solomon Islands.
New Zealand's next parliamentary elections must be held no later than Nov. 15 — only 11 days after the 2008 U.S. presidential election, which Ferguson says he's "watching with great interest and fascination."
As ambassador, Ferguson heads up a staff of about 60, including 20 diplomats. The Washington mission is New Zealand's largest around the world; the country also maintains consulates in New York and Los Angeles, as well as 11 honorary consulates stretching from Houston to Honolulu.
"My priority is to strengthen the overall relationship between New Zealand and the United States, because we share values, as two of the relatively few countries that have been continuous democracies since the 19th century," he said. "By and large, we have similar outlooks on the world we'd like to see, human rights are respected, and our peoples have democratic choices, which lead to a lot of cooperation."
It also leads to a lot of tourism, which by the way is New Zealand's No. 1 income generator. Last year, the country attracted two million tourists — including 220,000 Americans — despite the fact that only three airlines fly there from the United States, Qantas, Air New Zealand and Tahiti Nui, with round-trip airfare from the East Coast running well over $2,000.
"Usually when I meet Americans, even if they don't know much about New Zealand, they will at least have heard about our spectacular scenic beauty," said Ferguson.
"We are moving as quickly as we can towards sustainable tourism, trying to compensate for our carbon footprint by planting trees in New Zealand and other imaginative schemes," he said. "We have a directive to go carbon-neutral by 2012, and that's going to be a big challenge for us."
One of New Zealand's most interesting attractions is the Auckland Zoo, which also happens to be the headquarters for the Fragile Kiwi campaign. According to the New Zealand Kiwi Foundation, there are only 70,000 kiwis left in the country – a drop of more than 8,000 in just six years —meaning the rare birds could become extinct within 30 years unless more is done to protect the fragile species.
On the positive side, Operation Nest Egg, a kiwi conservation program, recently celebrated the hatching of its 1,000th kiwi chick. Birds raised in captivity have a 65% chance of surviving their first year of life.
Speaking of kiwis, the term refers not only to the flightless bird, but also the furry sweet fruit which originated in China but eventually came to be one of New Zealand's most popular exports. In recent years, however, New Zealand kiwi producers have been getting serious competition from Italy, and to a lesser extent from Chile.
"When we developed the green kiwi fruit, there were no plant protection rights," said Ferguson. "Since then, our plant scientists have developed the gold kiwi, which we sell in other countries like Japan and South Korea. We get royalties, and we're hoping to develop a new fruit every five or six years. This is part of the innovative culture we're trying to encourage, based on our traditional experience in agriculture."
Ferguson added: "Our latest invention is the kiwi berry — a fruit about the size of a grape, but without the furry skin, so you can eat it whole."