Diplomatic dealings in Washington raise questions

New Zealand's ambassador to the United States Tim Groser has had his hands full dealing with Donald Trump. Photo: NZ Embassy.

That Donald Trump has upended the world of diplomacy is not up for debate. Yet the New Zealand embassy’s decision to engage a US lobbying firm with no prior foreign experience raises questions about the state of our affairs in Washington, as Sam Sachdeva writes.

Opinion: Announcing a budget boost for New Zealand’s foreign service this week, Winston Peters was unequivocal about the value of our diplomatic corps.

“As a small nation of fewer than five million people,” the Foreign Affairs Minister said, “skilled diplomacy has proven to be an essential part of protecting our vital national interests and securing domestic prosperity.”

Peters is right - and that’s why we need answers from our Washington embassy about the deal it struck with US lobbyist Robert Stryk and his Sonoran Policy Group.

Set against a nearly billion-dollar increase to our foreign budget, a $240,000 contract would not appear much to lose sleep about.

More concerning, however, is what the deal says about our diplomats’ ability to adapt to a changing environment, and to carefully choose who advocates on our behalf.

According to some, the embassy was in a state of near-mourning after Donald Trump’s election, having planned - even hoped - for a Hillary Clinton presidency (admittedly, they were not alone in doing so).

Caught out by an unpredictable president-elect and a chaotic transition process, it’s no surprise Ambassador Tim Groser and his team quickly jumped on anyone touting their ties to Trump.

Other countries had to employ unorthodox methods to reach the President: Australian golfer Greg Norman famously put Malcolm Turnbull in touch with Trump.

Nor is it unusual for foreign embassies in Washington to engage lobbyists to help them navigate Capitol Hill.

Stryk, a country music fan, likened the leap to moving from small-town bars to Madison Square Garden. The obvious question is, what kind of promoter would book a self-described “struggling artist” for the biggest stage around?

Yet New Zealand’s reliance on SPG may in part reflect a failure to build ties with Republicans and others close to Trump - an impression only boosted by the fact the embassy was using Stryk’s team to reach the President nearly three months after election night.

Then there is the question of how and why exactly SPG was chosen.

The firm had never before advocated on behalf of a foreign government, and reported no lobbying activity at all between 2013 and 2016.

Stryk, a country music fan, likened the leap to moving from small-town bars to Madison Square Garden.

The obvious question is, what kind of promoter would book a self-described “struggling artist” for the biggest stage around?

MFAT has also acknowledged “concerns in relation to some SPG staff” were discussed during the due diligence process.

It hasn’t elaborated, but a basic dig into Stryk’s past reveals some troubling accusations made against him - albeit accusations he denies and attributes to dirty politics.

The foreign clients SPG has taken on after New Zealand jar with our usual alliances, as does the firm’s work for an arms dealer on a UN travel ban list.

Even Stryk’s one-time colleague, Stuart Jolly, left the firm after expressing discomfort with its “auditions” for foreign clients.

MFAT insists New Zealand has benefited from the deal, but greater transparency about the due diligence process and the work done by SPG would be welcome.

Trump has ushered in a brave new world for politics in Washington, and our government may need to find brave new diplomats to fight for New Zealand’s interests.

There are broader questions to be asked about how our Washington embassy is being run.

Deputy head of mission Caroline Beresford’s (eventually deleted) tweets telling the US Democratic Party to “get your shit together or we will all die” showed a stunning lack of judgment from our second-highest ranking diplomat in the US.

Peters’ predecessor Murray McCully lashed New Zealand’s foreign officials over their failure to get to grips with Trump’s “Muslim ban”, while more recently some have (perhaps unfairly) questioned New Zealand’s inability to secure an exemption from US steel tariffs.

Change at the embassy is inevitable.

Beresford’s term in Washington ended last week, and while MFAT are tight-lipped on what punishment if any she received, it seems unlikely she will return to a high-powered role.

Groser’s stint as ambassador is believed to finish later this year, and Peters has all but said he will not be sticking around for a second stint.

Trump has ushered in a brave new world for politics in Washington, and our government may need to find brave new diplomats to fight for New Zealand’s interests.