4. Sachdeva interviews US ambassador Brown

US Ambassador Scott Brown shows off his music memorabilia collection in Wellington. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

The job of Donald Trump’s New Zealand representative would seem a nightmare to some, but Scott Brown says he’s “the luckiest guy in the world”. Brown marks his first year as Washington’s man in Wellington this week, and spoke to Sam Sachdeva about the highs and lows of the job so far.

From the outside, the US Ambassador’s residence looks the same as ever: a sprawling lawn, waving American flag, and elegant house befitting a foreign diplomat.

It’s the interior where Scott Brown has made his mark: signed guitars, vinyl records and photos of Brown with musicians line the walls in what could be mistaken for an exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Music, says Brown, is his way of breaking down political barriers: his Independence Day party in Wellington this year has a rock’n’roll theme, with a supergroup of Kiwi politicians set to perform.

Sitting on his couch in a black State Department polo and beige slacks, with family dog Gracie gnawing on a toy by his side, Brown says his first year in the job has flown by.

“Overall I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world, to represent my country in a great country like this...every day there’s something new.”

Brown’s knowledge of New Zealand pre-arrival was limited to the basics: the All Blacks, the America’s Cup, the Lord of the Rings, “and the fact it was really far away”.

He’s made his way around a fair chunk of the country since, both for work and pleasure (Brown is an avid triathlete).

“I was at a race and a couple of guys came up to me and said, ‘Hey Ambassador, I’m only here to kick your ass’...I said OK, well bring your wallet.”

Trump's approach 'no surprise'

It’s not all fun and games. Brown has already met over 80 MPs and is hoping to collect the whole set, while it must be difficult standing up for Trump’s views to unreceptive Kiwi audiences - not that he sees it that way.

“There are some people, probably about 25 percent, who say, ‘I don’t like you and I don’t like the president’, and that’s pretty normal...40 percent look over their shoulder and say, ‘Hey I love your guy, he’s great, shhh, don’t tell anybody’.”

Concern about Trump’s approach reached new heights last week, with photos of crying migrant children separated from their parents (this interview took place before much of the outrage, but Brown said later by email that the US was “committed to the unity of detainee families”).

Despite an ongoing investigation over Russia, a spate of sackings and resignations, and the President’s tweetstorms, Brown argues Trump is delivering what his supporters wanted.

“Everything he’s doing now is no surprise, because he said he was going to do it, and the surprise is that you have a politician who’s actually doing what he said he was going to do.”

Brown has had to weather controversy of his own, accused early into his tenure of inappropriate behaviour at a Peace Corps event in Samoa.

He said at the time it was a cultural misunderstanding but a valuable diplomatic lesson, remarks he still stands by.

"It’s been, what, eleven months, and quite honestly you’re the first person to ask in eleven months, so no, we’re very comfortable with what we said and how it was handled.”

'Strong US-NZ bonds'

Overall, Brown says the US-NZ relationship is as strong as ever, pointing to the smooth transition from diplomatic relations under the Bill English-led government to its Jacinda Ardern-helmed successor.

“I thought her [Ardern’s] initial comments reaffirming those strong US-New Zealand bonds right out of the gate was fantastic: the President called her within a very short time of her being elected, there’s been constant communication between all the ministers and their counterparts back home.”

Although Ardern has at points been vocal in her criticism of Trump’s conduct , Brown is quick to downplay any suggestion of deep divisions.

“Friends aren’t going to agree on everything - it’s OK to disagree, and part of having a good strong relationship.”

Trade has provided a recent wrinkle, with New Zealand failing to secure an exemption from US tariffs on steel and aluminium imports.

Brown says discussions regarding the tariffs are ongoing, but suggests we are hardly on the top of Trump’s agenda.

“With respect, New Zealand plays such a small role right now in terms of steel and aluminium production...between North Korea and the larger picture, it’s not something that we need to absolutely focus on right now.”

There are fears however that the tariffs are just the latest indication of the US turning its back on the world, following its withdrawal from the TPP trade talks, Paris climate agreement and Iran nuclear deal.

In each case, Brown is at pains to note Trump is “keeping the door open” on a change of heart, but makes it clear America First is here to stay.

“We need to make sure that in order to be that world leader, the world helper, we have our fiscal house in order.”

If the US is loosening its grip on the leadership of the free world, it’s certainly keen to ensure China doesn’t take its place.

Brown says he doesn’t want to pick on the Asian superpower, but goes on the offensive as he talks about Hamilton “ripping up” inferior Chinese steel in its roads, the country’s construction of dirty coal plants, and its military installations in the South China Sea.

“If China’s going to be that world leader, world superpower, as President Obama said when he was here, they’ve had a free ride for 30 years, they’ve got to start playing by the rules.”

No Five Eyes fears

New Zealand’s own approach to China has been under the spotlight, with a former CIA analyst telling the US Congress it should review New Zealand’s role within the Five Eyes intelligence alliance .

If there are any concerns on the American side about New Zealand’s stance, Brown says he’s never been told about them by Trump or any other officials.

“Everything that I know under the present administration, and under the Bill English administration, is that Five Eyes security relationship is stronger than it’s ever been.”

He’s complimentary of the Government’s Pacific reset, and says the US is also keen to step up its work in the region.

Brown says all Pacific donors should be “playing by the rules”, but denies the increased focus is about shutting out China.

“I don’t look at as a check and balance to China, because I look at China as a partner, and there’s plenty of room for everybody to do things in the Pacific.”

Pushing for peace

Another big issue on Brown’s mind is how the US moves ahead from recent peace talks with North Korea.

He describes it as a “high risk, high reward situation”, and says criticism of handing Kim Jong Un a propaganda victory should be weighed against the potential for peace.

“I’d rather bring him into the world fold as a world contributor than a world instigator or someone who’s constantly making threats. I want to have the ability, and I’m glad they did it, to sit across from that person and look him or her and the eye, and say, ‘Look, we need to solve this problem’.”

There are problems to be solved closer to New Zealand too: his priorities including continuing business and education exchanges, winning access to E1 and E2 business visas, and bilateral trade discussions next month.

Then there’s the possibility of a visit by Trump, which Brown said he would raise during a trip to the US.

“It’s one of the first things I’m going to say: hey My President, it’s great to see you - by the way, let’s go.”

Any hopes of a rockstar welcome seem unlikely, but Brown must be hoping his 4th of July music can soothe any tensions in US-NZ ties.