Diplomatic Pouch / November 15, 2011
By Larry Luxner
Ambassador Mike Moore, with typical self-deprecating humor, jokes that he holds the record as New Zealand’s shortest-serving prime minister of the last 100 years.
On Oct. 3, Moore was the star attraction at a salmon, chicken and veggie dinner that attracted 130 people to his country’s embassy fronting Observatory Circle. As his audience enjoyed glasses of New Zealand’s own Ponga pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, Moore — who’s been ambassador here since August 2010 — gave his guests a sobering assessment of his country’s economic performance in the wake of two earthquakes that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-largest city.
The first one, measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale, struck barely a month after Moore arrived in Washington, causing significant damage to Christchurch and the central Canterbury region, but killing no one. That was followed by a second quake this February. Although the second one was far less powerful — a relatively modest 6.3 in magnitude — its epicenter was only 10 kilometers southeast of Christchurch, and it left 188 people dead and hundreds more injured. More than half of all deaths occurred in the six-story Canterbury TV Building, which collapsed and caught fire in the quake.
“The earth has not stopped moving. It’s still rocking and rolling, and it’s as bad as it can get,” said Moore, noting that at least 7,000 aftershocks have struck the Christchurch area since then, including a severe aftershock in mid-June that caused considerable additional damage.
“Vast suburbs probably won’t be rebuilt. You can’t pour concrete when the earth is moving,” he said. “Kids have lost their hearing because of the stress. We will rebuild, but this has not been a good time.”
The “diplomatic dialogue” dinner was organized by the Asia Society, in partnership with four other organizations: the Australia America Association, the United States-New Zealand Council, the Australians in Washington Association and the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area. Moore’s audience included Henrietta H. Fore, co-chair of the Asia Society, and Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Proportionally speaking, the quakes took a much heavier economic toll on New Zealand (10 to 12 percent of GDP) than either Hurricane Katrina, which shaved 1 percent off the U.S. economy in 2005, or Japan’s 9.0 mega-earthquake earlier this year, which economists say will shrink annual Japanese GDP by 3 to 4 percent.
Even so, he said, New Zealand’s economic future is relatively bright.
“On the ease of doing business, we’re normally ranked third or second behind Singapore and Hong Kong,” said Moore. “We’re the most open economy in the world, and Transparency International lists us as the least corrupt country, alongside Finland and one or two others. We’re open for business and we’re doing quite well, despite the hit from the earthquake. Our economy has grown seven out of the last eight quarters, interest rates are near a 40-year low, and we’re enjoying high commodity prices and lower household debt. So we should be seeing a surplus by 2014 or 2015.”
Moore, 62, served briefly as New Zealand’s Labor Party prime minister — but he’s better known on the world stage as former director-general of the World Trade Organization. Moore’s 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 successful WTO accession of Albania, China, Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Jordan, Lithuania, Moldova, Oman and Taiwan.
Although he’s widely respected as the driving force behind the decision to launch a new round of multilateral trade talks in Qatar, Moore said the fact that the Doha Round has stagnated has been an enormous disappointment.
“I am personally heartbroken that the Doha Round is not moving. This is one of the greatest follies in recent history,” he said. “We still believe in the WTO, but we New Zealanders know we have to do this. Otherwise we’ll perish.”
Moore went on to explain: “When I was born, 90 percent of everything we produced went to England. Now we’re lucky if 12 percent goes to Europe. So we had to diversify and make some pretty tough decisions. We went from one of the most closed economies in the world to one of the most open. We can’t eat all our meat or drink all our wine, although some of us try. We know that 4.5 million customers is not enough, so our prosperity is linked to the prosperity of others.”
To that end, said the ambassador, New Zealand has more than doubled its trade with China in the last two years. “The Chinese have been genuine, sincere partners, and we’ve had no problem with them.”
Along with Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the United States, New Zealand is also working to establish a Trans-Pacific Partnership that would effectively abolish tariffs and duties, and create one giant free-trade agreement among all the countries.
“President Obama said he wants something substantial by November, so we’re doing everything we can to deliver that,” he insisted. “We are tired of the wheels spinning in Geneva and the same arguments over and over again. Let’s clinch a deal. Let’s have no exceptions. Let’s get the ball rolling.”
Asked by a member of the audience to identify New Zealand’s greatest foreign-affairs priority, Moore didn’t hesitate for a moment.
“The most important relationship in the world is that between China and the U.S. How we all work on that relationship will determine what kind of world we’ll have,” he replied. “I think everyone in the world should answer that question the same way.”