The interview: Making the case for New Zealand in DC

In a town where men with big egos hold sway, ambassador Rosemary Banks is possessed of a most valuable attribute — the capacity to listen.

Banks is not one to blow her own trumpet: “the kūmara doesn’t speak about its own sweetness”, she quips during an interview at her office at the New Zealand embassy at 37 Observatory Circle.

“This is something I’ve discussed with other women ambassadors. I think this is actually something that comes more readily — and I don’t want to be falling into stereotypes. But I think women do tend to listen a bit more and not be quite so concerned about expressing the ego.

“I’m probably relatively without ego — which can be a failing.”

NZ embassy observers I spoke with in Washington say Banks’ professional style is refreshing after a decade when former politicians and dominant personalities, such as the late Mike Moore and Tim Groser, held sway.

“If you listen to people, they relax. And you know, a lot of the tricks of diplomacy, or the tricks of journalism, you need people to establish a sense of trust with you so they can tell you things that they wouldn’t otherwise wish to tell you.

“A trap, which I can’t fall into with you,” she laughs.

Banks’ acerbic riposte is schooled by her marriage to journalist Brian Lockstone, once chief press secretary to former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon. The pair have built strong networks among some Washington influencers and his keen intelligence and political nose is an obvious asset in her role as ambassador.

When Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters announced her appointment to the plum Washington post, he described Banks as a consummate professional.

She is the most experienced among the triumvirate of female diplomats who now represent New Zealand in the capitals of our major trading partners. She replaced Groser in late 2018, coming out of retirement after a long career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Career diplomat Clare Fearnley had earlier taken up the Beijing ambassadorship and former Labour deputy leader Dame Annette King moved to Canberra in December 2018.

This is a historic confluence in New Zealand diplomacy, where stellar women have sometimes been passed over for plum positions. It has been noted with admiration by women serving in other foreign affairs establishments.

Banks is frequently asked how she deals with the Trump Administration. She makes the point that she has not been posted to Washington DC before.

“If I was a typical ambassador who’d been here as counsellor, maybe even a deputy, that I had in mind the way Washington used to work when I was here before, then I would be constantly making comparisons.

“I visited often enough when I was in my previous roles, particularly as deputy secretary, so I knew how Washington worked. It’s much more fragmented now. And of course, people are not quite so certain about policy settings. But in terms of our bilateral relationship with the ability to progress that and to get the doors open when we knock, we haven’t actually experienced any difficulties at the working level.

“We’ve had good access, and, you know, on things like the Christchurch call to action, well, we couldn’t get them quite alongside us where we wanted them but they were very open to that discussion. They did their best to give support as far as they thought they could within the constraints of the way they see their constitution.”

Since Banks presented her credentials to President Donald Trump, she has built a programme of regular ministerial visits — particularly by Peters — which paved the way for Jacinda Ardern’s own meeting with the President in New York last September.

For a Prime Minister who had been labelled the “anti-Trump” by former Prime Minister Helen Clark, this was an important step forward for the bilateral relationship. There was a realisation on both sides that while each leader had different political principles they wished to uphold, their countries also had interests.

Ardern’s celebrity after the Christchurch attacks gave her visibility as well as a presence on US media networks as she advocated for the “Christchurch call”.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Supplied
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Supplied

After her meeting with the President, Ardern said Trump was enthusiastic about a free trade agreement with New Zealand.

“The idea of continuing a conversation about New Zealand’s trade relationship with the US was greeted warmly, and I expect there will be some ongoing conversations.

“These things do take time. The fact that there was that enthusiasm there to continue those conversations I think is really important,” said Ardern.

Banks underlines that presidential enthusiasm is also built on the geostrategic argument that Peters has successfully promoted in Washington with both Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: that for New Zealand to be able to do its best for the Pacific region, there needs to be certainty and a more structured relationship with the US.

“The geostrategic argument sits well in the White House,” says Banks.

“It’s not an argument that is so strongly accepted by the US Trade Representative. But they’ve understood it, and, you know, they’ve had big ones on the plate until pretty recently,” she says. “So, we’re hopeful now that the China deal, and the [US-Mexico-Canada Agreement] is gone through.

“We’re doing our best to get as much attention and focus on the New Zealand case from [the US Trade Representative] in coming months as we can before we sort of hit the Niagara Falls of the election.”

New Zealand still wants to see the US participate in a regional free trade agreement like the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership at a future date. But Banks underscores the need for realism.

“You know it’s been on and off. And you will have followed that throughout your career as I have.

“It’s been on and off the agenda a number of times in different manifestations, and of course, we were all hopeful at the time of TPP that we’d solved the problem, but obviously, we hadn’t.

“So that remains, you know, for the embassy, a big driver.” Behind the scenes, the embassy has been advancing the prospect of a digital trade deal as a first step on the path to a bilateral free trade agreement.

“That’s something we are starting to talk about now,” says Banks.

She likens it to using “little devils”.

“You put them on the barbecue and get them warmed up and then we can try to cook … to extend the analogy.”

“If, ideally, we have a successful discussion on a digital trade agreement, we would see that as opening the door to then putting the larger number of issues on the table for a trade agreement.

“Not a kind of salami approach where we’ll do one little bit and then another little bit. We will do this starter piece, and then say, right now, let’s look at the comprehensive range of issues that we’re both got.

“So, we’re hoping that this one would be a suitable starting point for a longer term discussion.”

Peters set three objectives for Banks as Ambassador to the US.

“He said he wanted that we should have the best possible relationship of trust with the US and to understand where they’re coming from,” recalls Banks.

“Secondly, he wanted to get that US closer engagement of the Pacific. And he’s personally, as you know, done a great deal to achieve that over the last 13 months.

“And thirdly, was the improved trade and economic relationship. You know, he continues as we all do, to see it as an anomaly in the overall good, comprehensive relationship that we don’t have that final piece of architecture between us.”

She makes the point that the intellectual environment in Washington is now more susceptible to New Zealand’s case than it was in the past when China was not seen as the issue for the US that it currently is.

Banks, pictured in 2008, addresses the UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New York. Photo / Getty Images
Banks, pictured in 2008, addresses the UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New York. Photo / Getty Images

The bilateral defence and security relationship has also deepened with a big expansion of NZ Defence Force personnel in US facilities. She notes Washington understood, in terms of the Huawei 5G decision, that NZ had an independent process, which is country- and supply-neutral but assesses any security issues.

“I think everybody in Washington is very focused on China. And, specifically, of course, how the US-China relationship will, how they will manage this in future.

“You often hear American colleagues say we’ve sort of been sleepwalking our way through this, thinking that China was going to … behave like a global citizen. Now we’ve opened up and realised it’s not going to be that simple.

“So they’re principally worried about how they manage that going forward, but they also are very attentive to the way countries like us, and particularly the Five Eyes partners, are managing that relationship.

“I mean, they fully understand that it’s our most important trading partner, they know that we have to manage different kinds of relationships. That we don’t have always have the luxury of having a complete commonality of outlook with our major trading partners. But it’s something that all of us and all of our relationships going forward are going to have to be very mindful of.”

Banks is particularly excited by the development of the NZ space industry and the opportunities for bilateral co-operation.

“We tend to think about the focus on Rocket Lab and the fact that they’ve now done 11 successful launches. But, there’s also Leo Labs, the US company that set up the new space debris tracking radar.”

She underlines the fact that there is a common misperception among young New Zealanders that the US is about Disneyland, and similar ignorance on the American side.

“We are now coming to a point where younger generations of Americans don’t take that memory of what, say, New Zealand did alongside their forebears in the Second World War.

“So that’s, you know, the story that we need to keep telling about New Zealand. It’s not easy for a smaller country to sustain attention. The Five Eyes relationship has helped us to do that; being seen as a trusted partner and a reliable partner.

“That’s, I think, an advantage that we do have, but it’s not one that you can take for granted or that you expect to just roll on naturally from generation to generation. I will say at the moment, and again, it’s partly because of the terrible tragedies of the mosque terrorist attacks last year, but New Zealand really has, and everybody’s reporting this, quite a profile still in the US.

“That’s lasted, hasn’t it?”

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