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New Zealand's Mike Moore: Kiwi Optimism Will Prevail
The Washington Diplomat / October 2010

By Larry Luxner

Barely a month after Michael Kenneth Moore cheerfully accepted Prime Minister John Key’s challenge to “make himself bloody useful” as New Zealand’s new ambassador in Washington, the country was jolted by a 7.1-magnitude earthquake — followed by more than 300 aftershocks that continue to rattle Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island.

“This isn’t over yet, and will never be over for New Zealand. It’s where we live,” said Moore. “But our building codes are good and our civil defense people were all ready to go. We have an Earthquake and War Damages Commission which reinsures against this sort of loss. Everything just clicked into place.”

Even so, the temblor destroyed some 500 older buildings — causing an estimated $2.9 billion in damage — and is likely to trim economic growth by 0.4 percentage points in the third quarter of 2010. “What is clear is that in financial terms, this will turn out to be the most costly natural disaster New Zealand has ever experienced,” Key told reporters in Christchurch after visiting the devastation.

Moore, himself a former prime minister, said he learned of the quake from his staff the afternoon of Sept. 3, minutes after it struck at 4:35 a.m. New Zealand time. Calls immediately started pouring in from U.S. officials including David Huebner, the American ambassador in Wellington, and Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

“We were extremely lucky,” said Moore, expressing relief that not a single New Zealander died in the quake, even though it was just as powerful as the one that devastated Haiti early this year, killing 230,000 people. “If it had happened at 4:35 p.m. instead of a.m., we wouldn’t have been so lucky.”

In fact, New Zealand seems to have more than its fair share of good fortune. Despite its geographical isolation from the world’s population centers, the country’s 4.2 million citizens enjoy relatively high living standards and some of the most breathtaking scenery on Earth, ranging from snowcapped mountains to spectacular fjords. This English-speaking former colony has no outside enemies and virtually no political unrest.

Annual per-capita income stands at around $31,000, while New Zealand ranks 20th on the 2009 Human Development Index. In addition, the highly respected 2009 Mercer Quality of Living Survey ranked Auckland 4th and Wellington 12th on its list of the world’s most livable cities.

Although the 2007-09 global financial crisis affected his country badly, Moore said his fellow “kiwis” are resilient people and that the economy is bouncing back.

“We’re a very content country, but everyone has challenges,” Moore told The Washington Diplomat in a 45-minute interview conducted at the embassy only days after he presented his credentials to President Obama. “We’ve slid down the OECD rankings for living standards and disposable income. We all have climate-change problems. And we’ve lost some one million citizens to Australia, the U.K. and America.”

One reason for the exodus is that it’s easier than ever to get out of New Zealand.

“Auckland to Sydney today is a four-hour flight,” he said. “In my parents’ generation, we never traveled anywhere except in uniform. And when I was a kid, it took a year’s pay to travel overseas. Now students would be let down if they haven’t been to Europe before the age of 20.”

Moore, 61, described in an embassy press release as “a jovial and down-to-earth character,” quit school at the age of 14 to work in a slaughterhouse. Later on, he became a social worker in a hospital for the criminally insane — an experience he likes to say prepared him well for a life in politics.

Even so, Moore insists he never planned or expected to become Wellington’s man in Washington.

“I was asked by the prime minister and I said yes,” he explained. “I’ve been trade minister, foreign minister, director of the WTO and a few other things. And I’m the third former prime minister to serve here as ambassador — but the first one appointed by the opposition party, which is very unusual. Some people don’t believe me, but it took a bit of convincing for me to come out of retirement and put the uniform on again.”

The fact that Moore — a Labour Party stalwart — was named ambassador by John Key of the ruling New Zealand National Party is “no big deal,” he says.

“The truth of the matter is that great national interests do not change with a change in government,” he told The Diplomat. “There was a consensus by our major political parties on New Zealand’s relationship with the United States, and those relations are very good right now.”

Over the next three years, Moore says one of his key tasks as ambassador will be to promote free trade via the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) among the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

In fact, Moore is far better known as former director-general of the World Trade Organization than as ex-prime minister of New Zealand — a position he held for only two months in late 1990. His leadership at the Geneva-based WTO from 1999 to 2002 coincided with momentous changes in the global economy and multilateral trading system, as well as the accession of China, Taiwan, Albania, Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Jordan, Lithuania, Moldova and Oman to the world body.

Ministers at the fourth WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar, respect him as the driving force behind the decision to launch a new round of multilateral trade talks.

Nevertheless, he conceded that the Doha Round has been, in his words, “an enormous disappointment.”

“The wheels are spinning, negotiations are continuing, but in the end, they disappoint because they never go far enough. They always take time because this is serious stuff,” he lamented. “When we set up the WTO, evolving from GATT, some of us idealistically believed there’d be no more trade rounds, and that we’d just have a permanent negotiating machinery. But that didn’t happen. Great interests are at stake.”

Moore said there’s enough blame to go around for everyone.

“It’s all about politics, what can float and what cannot. The forces of protectionism are always organized. There are people who feel they will lose and make their voices known to politicians in Tokyo, Washington, Brussels, Delhi or Beijing.”

“When this thing started, Brazil was an importer of beef. Now it’s the world’s biggest exporter of beef, and they’re also first in poultry, soy, coffee and orange juice. They also manufacture steel and aircraft,” he said. “It’s no longer north versus south. A lot of it is south-south, so the old traditional stories don’t hold anymore.”

Besides being a politician and world trade negotiator, Moore is also a published author. According to his personal website, www.mike-moore.info — which predates his current appointment as ambassador — Moore has published 11 books. These include weighty titles such as “Fighting for New Zealand,” “A Pacific Parliament” and “A World Without Walls” (the last one having been translated into Chinese and Turkish).

A recent article on that site, titled “Flagging Away the Substance,” offers readers a glimpse into Moore’s wry humor. In this essay, the retired politician pokes fun at a proposed referendum on changing New Zealand’s current status as a constitutional monarchy to that of a republic.

“Every now and then, an attention-seeking politician or a bored talkback host grabs a headline with yet another worthy idea to advance our journey towards nationhood,” he wrote. “Why not a new flag? The most pathetic argument, based on an inferiority complex, is that our flag looks like the Australian flag. Too bad, let them change theirs.”

Moore’s most recent book, still available online, is “Saving Globalization: Why Globalization and Democracy Offer the Best Hope for Progress, Peace and Development.” The 320-page tome has been praised as “an eloquent and persuasive defense of liberal democracy” by no less than former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

“The one I wrote before that, “A World Without Walls,” did much better in sales,” he told The Diplomat. “Everyone was writing books predicting the end of capitalism, the end of the Anglo-American model. Of course that didn’t happen. The world adjusts.”

But sometimes painfully, as in the case of New Zealand, which he says was “badly affected” by the recent global economic slowdown. However, the country’s economy has begun to turn around, thanks to increased government spending and a recovery in exports and tourism.

“During the Great Depression, governments cut expenditures and tried to balance the books,” Moore explained. “There were devaluations to gain market share. Trade shrunk, and from that Great Depression came fascism and Marxism. Then the war came. At that time, central banks hardly existed. Now we have the IMF, central banks and the WTO.”

He added that New Zealand’s future is linked to that of China and to a lesser extent Australia — both of which rank among the world’s fastest-growing economies.

“China’s role has been tremendously positive so far, with essentially 300-400 million people having been lifted out of extreme poverty. Their purchasing power has been driving the world’s economy during the recession,” he said. “Australia has also done quite well. It had bigger reserves [than New Zealand], its product mix is different and they were quite prudent.”

Beyond that, Moore didn’t want to comment much on his WTO days.

“I’ve got another job now, and another life, and that life has moved on,” he said. “I have a boss for the first time in 45 years, and we very much want U.S. engagement in the region. Nobody is saying ‘Yankee Go Home.’ That was the 1960s, not now.”

Moore, whose predecessor Roy Ferguson was profiled on our cover two years ago (see “Squeaky-Clean New Zealand Hopes to Set Global Example, Washington Diplomat, August 2008), said that “as ambassador, I’m concerned with a number of vital issues. Trade is one of them. We also hope to do more work in the education sector and in science. Your guys are encouraging us to work with you on green energy.”

Yet New Zealand’s top foreign-policy objective remains working toward nuclear non-proliferation and elimination of all weapons of mass destruction. Its longstanding policy of banning nuclear-powered warships from docking at the country’s ports has put New Zealand at odds with the United States and continues to be a point of contention between the two allies, which see eye-to-eye on almost everything else.

“We do have a difference [on this issue], but it’s not such a big difference that it stops us from cooperating in just about every corner of the world,” Moore said at a recent Washington conference on bilateral relations (see related story).“In Afghanistan, New Zealanders are working alongside Americans and involved at several levels such as police, reconstruction and civilian aid. And we’re in places where America is not, like Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands.”

In fact, he said, “we think we have insight into the South Pacific, because there are whole countries you’ve never heard of. For example, Tuvalu is threatened by climate change. We have a natural affinity with these guys.”

However, Moore was reluctant to discuss difficulties in the U.S.-New Zealand relationship. “The stress points are past. I don’t want to go there,” he said. “They’re consigned to history.”

Moore says he’d like the United States to cash in on his country’s growing trade ties with the economic giants of Asia.

“China has become very important to us. We’re getting more and more tourism from China than we are from Japan. They’ve become our friends and we’ve become their friends,” he said, noting that more than a million Chinese are studying abroad, many of them in New Zealand.

“We live in an era of changing geopolitical relationships. In New Zealand, we are excited by the growth of opportunities in our region,” he said. “When I was born, 90 percent of what we produced went to England. Today, we ship more to Korea than to England. We want the United States to be part of this picture of regional prosperity.”

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