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Foreign policy and diplomatic representation

by Michael Green

For many years New Zealand aligned itself strongly with Britain and had few bilateral relationships with other countries. In the later 20th century, relationships in the Asia–Pacific region became more important. Involvement with multilateral organisations remains a vital way for a relatively small, remote nation to achieve its foreign-policy objectives.

Making New Zealand’s foreign policy

‘Foreign policy’ means the strategies by which a government pursues its national interests through dealings with other countries and international organisations. Important objectives for foreign policy are:

  • ensuring New Zealand’s security against external threats
  • improving commercial opportunities for New Zealand businesses
  • helping to formulate international rules and standards through political and economic agreements.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has the further responsibility of assisting New Zealand citizens in trouble in foreign countries.

Foreign policy is closely related to, and often overlaps with, defence policy and overseas trade and economic policy.

Who makes foreign policy?

Governments set the broad goals of foreign policy. These are often outlined in political party election manifestos. In New Zealand the cabinet sometimes considers foreign-policy issues, but usually endorses decisions made by a cabinet committee on external relations, trade and defence. The minister of foreign affairs normally chairs this committee. The prime minister often plays an important foreign-policy role, both in decision-making and in representing New Zealand overseas.

Dressing down

New Zealand diplomats taking up a post overseas are given detailed guidance on appropriate clothing and other matters to consider in their new country. Staff leaving for the new New Zealand legation in Moscow in 1944 were advised, ‘We are having long lambskin coats made with outer surface of gabardine ... these are 'de rigueur' for official classes, sheepskin coats being associated more with peasantry ... Fur caps and furlined gloves are recommended. Top hats are not being taken.’1

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

MFAT is the principal government agency responsible for providing advice to the government on foreign policy. MFAT also implements policy through its network of diplomatic posts in other countries, which gather and analyse information used to update or adapt specific policies. MFAT officials, sometimes working with officials from other departments, prepare the policy papers on which the minister or cabinet take decisions. MFAT officials normally lead the New Zealand team in negotiations with other governments and in international organisations.

Role of Parliament

Parliament has limited involvement in making foreign policy but has important responsibilities in ratifying treaties. Parliament exercises some oversight of foreign policy through its select committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade, especially by examining MFAT’s Budget estimates and other documents, such as the statement of intent and annual report.

The statement of intent presented to Parliament under the minister’s authority outlines policy priorities, looking ahead five years. Within MFAT, all divisions and posts prepare more specific policy-implementation proposals for the year ahead. These operational plans are reviewed during the year and adapted if necessary. The annual report summarises progress towards priority objectives during the previous 12 months, and contains information on MFAT expenditure.

    • Quoted in Malcolm Templeton, Top hats are not being taken: a short history of the New Zealand legation in Moscow, 1944–1950. Wellington: New Zealand Institute of International Affairs in conjunction with the Ministry of External Relations and Trade, 1989, p. iv. Back

Origins of New Zealand foreign policy

Pre-Second World War

Before the Second World War New Zealand was a British dominion with no diplomatic service and only one significant overseas post, its high commission in London. Information on international affairs was supplied to the high commission by the UK government. When New Zealand had comments to offer, it made them to the UK’s Dominions Office. Until 1939 New Zealand’s governor-general was the channel for communications in both directions.

These arragements reflected New Zealand’s place in the world. The bulk of its trade was with the UK, much of it conducted under preferential arrangements. The UK was New Zealand’s main source of capital, migrants, ideas and culture. The Royal Navy protected the country. Nationhood was embryonic and most New Zealanders considered themselves British.

Department of External Affairs

A Department of External Affairs had been established in 1919 – but its focus was on the administration of Western Samoa (a New Zealand responsibility under a League of Nations mandate).

Dreams of grandeur

Since colonial times New Zealand political leaders have tried to claim a greater influence for New Zealand in South Pacific affairs. Even in the 1840s there was talk of a ‘British Empire in the Pacific centering on New Zealand’ and of a ‘grand island dominion’, or ‘Oceania for the Anglo-Saxons’.1

Empire affairs

New Zealand sought a role in British Empire policy-making during and after the First World War. In 1926 responsibility for external affairs beyond the Pacific was assumed by the newly created Prime Minister’s Department. Carl Berendsen, who headed the imperial-affairs section of the department, made an important contribution to the formulation of New Zealand’s imperial policies. It was this section that handled preparations for imperial conferences. In the lead-up to and during these conferences, New Zealand ministers actively defended their country’s interests. They also negotiated trade treaties with both empire and foreign governments.

League of Nations

In 1920 New Zealand, with other British dominions, became a founding member of the League of Nations. New Zealand was usually represented at league meetings by its high commissioner in London, who consulted closely with the British government.

The Labour government that took office at the end of 1935 was strongly anti-war and wanted to see the League of Nations strengthened for that purpose. This policy brought it into disagreement with the conservative UK government of the day. Such conflicts have sometimes been cited as early indicators of independence in New Zealand foreign policy. However, they were also party political disagreements, since New Zealand’s stance echoed positions taken by the British Labour Party, then in opposition.

    • Quoted in Keith Sinclair, A history of New Zealand. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969, pp. 217–218. Back

Impact of the Second World War

Representation in the United States

New Zealand’s readiness to conduct its external affairs within the framework of British imperial policy had been reinforced by British security guarantees. But when Japan went to war with the US and the UK in late 1941, it soon conquered British strongholds in South-East Asia and also advanced into the South Pacific. Senior cabinet minister Walter Nash was sent to Washington as resident minister in January 1942 to assert New Zealand’s interests.

Commonwealth relations

By convention, New Zealand’s relations with other Commonwealth countries were not called ‘foreign relations’ but ‘external relations’. New Zealand was represented in other Commonwealth countries by high commissioners rather than ministers or ambassadors. By 2011 the term ‘ministers’ had been superseded.

First overseas diplomatic posts

The need to deal more directly with other countries, and to prepare for post-war settlements, saw New Zealand establish high commissions in Ottawa, Canada, in 1942, and Canberra, Australia, in 1943. A minister was accredited to the USSR, a major wartime ally, in 1944. At that time New Zealand had no professional diplomats. Politicians were appointed to head the posts in Ottawa and Moscow, while Carl Berendsen himself (head of the imperial-affairs section of the Prime Minister’s Department) was sent to Canberra. To help staff Washington and Moscow, officials were seconded from the armed forces.

External Affairs Act

Berendsen had brought discipline to the management of external affairs in the Prime Minister’s Department, but the demands of running the war effort, lack of office space and his personal disinclination to expand his section limited its capability. In 1943 Parliament passed the External Affairs Act. This established a separate department of government to:

  • act as a channel of communication with other governments
  • assist in negotiating treaties and international agreements
  • direct New Zealand’s overseas posts
  • deal with diplomats from other countries in New Zealand.

A separate Island Territories Department was created at the same time. The act also provided for the appointment of high commissioners and other overseas representatives. Alister McIntosh was appointed secretary of external affairs. George Laking and Frank Corner, two future secretaries, joined External Affairs at this time, along with a long-serving member of the League of Nations Secretariat, J. V. Wilson. This group was to set the style and professional standards of New Zealand’s diplomatic service for several decades.

Diplomacy, 1945–1960

Formation of the United Nations

The External Affairs Department was initially preoccupied with post-war peace treaties and the establishment of a new international organisation, the United Nations. This aimed to maintain world peace by fostering international cooperation, helping to resolve disputes and resisting aggression through collective security.

Fraser at the UN

New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser played an active role in the June 1945 conference in San Francisco at which the UN Charter was negotiated, and he advocated the rights of smaller powers to participate as equals. Fraser opposed, ultimately unsuccessfully, charter provisions that allowed permanent members of the Security Council to veto resolutions. He sponsored, with greater success, the concept of trusteeship, or international oversight of the administration of colonies, which subsequently played an important part in decolonisation. New Zealand’s delegation also influenced charter articles on economic, social and human rights.

Multilateral diplomacy

From the outset New Zealand contributed actively to discussions across the whole UN agenda. This was partly because of its belief in the UN, but also because New Zealand had few significant bilateral relationships (diplomatic relationships with individual countries). Therefore multilateral diplomacy (relationships with groups of countries) through the UN and related organisations was a central preoccupation of New Zealand foreign policy in the late 1940s and 1950s. A mission to the UN was established in New York, with the New Zealand ambassador in Washington also designated a UN permanent representative.

Overseas posts

Both Labour and National (the latter took office in 1949) governments were sceptical of the need for a New Zealand diplomatic service and very reluctant to fund external representation or diplomatic initiatives. New missions were opened in Paris (1949) and The Hague (1950), but the Moscow mission was closed in 1950. New Zealand had an occupation force in Japan in the late 1940s and established a diplomatic post there in 1952, after the signing of the Japanese Peace Treaty ended the occupation.

Suspected of spying

New Zealand’s overseas diplomatic posts have periodically been embroiled in espionage scandals. Former Aucklander Paddy Costello worked at the New Zealand legations in Moscow and Paris after the Second World War. Secretary for External Affairs Alister McIntosh described him as ‘our most brilliant linguist and diplomatic officer’.1 Costello held left-wing views and was forced to resign from the legation in Paris because the Americans and British suspected he was a Soviet agent. The charge was probably baseless.

World Trade Organization

Another mission was established in Geneva in 1961, partly to cover UN agencies located there but mainly to increase participation in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which negotiated the multilateral rules for trade. The New Zealand mission remained in Geneva after GATT was replaced by the World Trade Organization in 1995. In 1997 it became a New Zealand mission to the UN as well as the New Zealand consulate general for Switzerland. Trade liberalisation under universally applicable rules, especially for primary products, was considered vital to New Zealand’s economy. Other posts, including in Paris (legation from 1949 and embassy from 1957), Rome (1966) and Vienna (1969), provided representation at specialised UN agencies.

Colombo Plan

Participation in the Colombo Conference in 1950 launched New Zealand on another path of international cooperation – assisting developing countries. The Colombo Plan focused initially on Commonwealth countries in Asia but soon broadened to include other states.

New Zealand contributed significant amounts of capital and technical assistance in the early years of the plan. External Affairs administered Colombo Plan assistance, which was justified partly in developmental terms and partly as a contribution to stability and security in recipient countries. Colombo Plan assistance was a key factor in the decisions to open posts in New Delhi and Jakarta in 1957. The Jakarta office was initially limited to aid delivery, but its presence generated demands that led by stages to full embassy status in 1967.

Apart from aid, External Affairs initially had little role in trade or financial issues, which were the responsibility of other government departments, especially Customs, Industries and Commerce (later Trade and Industry) and Treasury. External Affairs focused primarily on security and political issues. However in the early 1950s the department recruited diplomats with economic expertise, including Lloyd White and Frank Holmes.


Alliance diplomacy, 1950s to 1970s

Security concerns in Asia

Post-war New Zealand governments placed emphasis on collective security through the UN, but also felt a need for stronger bilateral security arrangements. The experience of the Japanese threat during the Second World War, the onset of the Cold War and the communist victory in China heightened interest in formal security ties with the US. Threats to New Zealand were thought most likely to arise in Asia, where only the US could deploy countervailing power. The sudden outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and New Zealand’s participation in the US-led UN force there, reinforced this perception.


The US was at first reluctant to offer a security commitment to New Zealand but this attitude faded as developments in Asia threatened US interests, especially those in Japan. In 1951 Australia, New Zealand and the US signed the ANZUS treaty, which contained a commitment to common action against armed attack on any of the signatories in the Pacific area. A council of ministers met periodically to discuss security issues in the region. Britain, whose territories in Asia were excluded from the ambit of ANZUS, was unhappy, but New Zealand went ahead nonetheless.

Manila Treaty and SEATO

In 1954 New Zealand joined the US, the UK, Australia, France and three Asian powers – Thailand, the Philippines and Pakistan – in signing the Manila Treaty. Like ANZUS, this made a general commitment to collective security in South-East Asia. The UK’s membership reassured New Zealand. A South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was established in Bangkok; its mandate included military planning. SEATO’s directions were set by regular meetings of a ministerial council. Non-communist South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were not members of SEATO but were the focus of much of its planning.

Pointing the finger

From the 1950s New Zealand’s foreign policy in South-East Asia was based in part on fears of a military threat from that part of the world. Minister of Defence Dean Eyre told Parliament in 1964, ‘It is a very sobering exercise to take up a globe of the world and to look at South East Asia, perhaps from the Chinese Communist point of view, and to see that the Malay Peninsula points like a finger in our direction with Indonesia and Australia as convenient stepping stones along the way.’1

Diplomatic posts in Asia

In 1955 New Zealand and the UK agreed that in the event of war New Zealand’s deployment should be in South-East Asia rather than (as previously) the Middle East. New Zealand contributed forces to a Commonwealth Strategic Reserve based in Malaya and Singapore, at that time both British territories. Accordingly, a New Zealand commissioner was appointed to Singapore. The commissioner managed relations with the two governments, consulted the British command on security and defence matters, and represented New Zealand on the SEATO council. In 1956 an embassy was opened in Thailand to strengthen participation in SEATO. In 1958, after Malaya’s independence, a high commission was established in Kuala Lumpur. The post in Singapore also became a high commission when that country became independent in 1965.

By 1967 New Zealand also had posts in India, Indonesia, Hong Kong and South Vietnam, performing a range of political, security, economic, aid and consular functions.

Vietnam War and ASEAN

The mission in South Vietnam was a product of New Zealand’s involvement in the US-led war against communist North Vietnam, and was closed in dramatic circumstances when the North Vietnamese were victorious in the south in 1975.

Economic opportunities partly explained new posts in South-East Asia, but the primary justification for opening posts in the Philippines (in 1975) and Vietnam (1995) was to assist in promoting a more effective partnership with an expanding Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Set up in 1967, this was originally an association of non-communist nations, but communist Vietnam joined in 1995 and Laos became a member in 1997.

    • New Zealand Parliamentary debates, 27 August 1964, vol. 339, p. 1652. Back

Foreign policy in Europe and beyond

Protecting access to UK markets

In mid-1961 came the first formal announcement by the UK that it intended to enter the European Economic Community (EEC). Even before this, New Zealand had mounted a diplomatic campaign to protect its markets in meat and dairy products. Those interests would be seriously damaged by the loss of preferential access to the British market, where the bulk of these exports were sent. The objective was to protect access to the UK for key commodities (especially lamb and butter) for as long as possible, while New Zealand sought to diversify its export commodities and export markets. External Affairs participation in developing policy on the EEC strengthened its role in economic policy-making.

Diplomatic posts in Europe

To advance its strategy, New Zealand expanded diplomatic representation in Europe beyond London, Paris and Geneva. Representation at EEC headquarters in Brussels (1961) was the critical step. New posts were also opened in Italy (1965) and West Germany (1966).

The Luxembourg agreement

The landmark Luxembourg agreement with the EEC, granting New Zealand a special arrangement for farm exports to Britain, was reached in mid-1971 after months of knife-edge negotiation. Once New Zealand had secured this key objective, it expected that its diplomatic representation in Europe could be reduced and resources redeployed. This did not occur. Issues requiring negotiation with the EEC (and its successor, the European Union or EU) continued to arise, and broad-based bilateral relationships with EU members generated important new work.

Rewi Alley

A key player in extending diplomatic relations with China was New Zealander Rewi Alley, who lived there from 1927. Sixty years later, in 1987, he was given a state reception in Beijing. At his funeral later that year, New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange said that very few foreigners had committed their whole lives to China, as Alley had done.

Economic and political diversification

To implement the other leg of the EEC strategy – diversifying markets for New Zealand exports – new posts were opened in South Korea (1971), Chile and Peru (1972) and Mexico (1983). The 1970s was an era of détente (easing of hostilities between Cold War adversaries) so posts opened for geopolitical reasons in China and the USSR in 1973. There were also new economic and trade opportunities. The wealth of oil-producing states led to missions opening in Iran and Iraq (1975), Bahrain (1977) and Saudi Arabia (1984).

New Zealand and Australia

Greater attention to trade opportunities in Australia led to negotiation of the New Zealand Australia Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1965 and to the Closer Economic Relations (CER) agreement in 1983. CER in particular removed most barriers to trans-Tasman trade and substantially integrated New Zealand’s economy with its larger neighbour.

Free trade agreements

From the late 1990s negotiating free-trade agreements became a foreign policy priority. A landmark agreement with China was concluded in 2008 but other targets, notably Japan and the United States, remained elusive.

Decolonisation and representation in the Pacific

South Pacific Commission

The South Pacific Commission (SPC) was an important focus for New Zealand foreign policy from the 1940s to the 1960s. The SPC was established in 1947 by six powers that administered Pacific territories, and acted as an advisory body to the participating governments on the economic and social development and welfare of the ‘native peoples’. In 1997 it became the Pacific Community. Its secretariat, based in Nouméa, New Caledonia, conducts research, recommends development measures and coordinates local projects.

Island territories

New Zealand had administered German (later Western) Samoa since it occupied it at the beginning of the First World War. It came under a League of Nations mandate and then was a UN trust territory. A high commission was established in Apia when Western Samoa (now Samoa) became independent in 1962.

Three other territories – the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau – were administered as part of New Zealand. Unlike other administering powers, New Zealand reported voluntarily on each to the UN. It invited UN observers when the Cook Islands (1965) and Niue (1974) chose self-government in free association with New Zealand, a status of less than full independence. New Zealand administration offices in both territories became commissions, in effect diplomatic posts, but named to reflect their constitutional link with New Zealand.

Cook Islands conflict

Relations between New Zealand and the Cook Islands were severely strained in 1978 when Gaven Donne, a New Zealand judge acting as the Cook Islands head of state, disallowed the results of its general election. He found that Premier Albert Henry had acted corruptly by flying in supporters from New Zealand to vote for him. A number of New Zealand police took a well-timed ‘holiday’ in the Cooks in case of possible disorder, but a peaceful change of government took place.

An independent Pacific

Other Pacific countries became independent of colonial powers in the 1970s, and New Zealand diplomatic posts followed in Fiji and Tonga (1970), Papua New Guinea (1974), the Solomon Islands (1978), Vanuatu (1987) and Kiribati (1988). Cross-accreditations (indirect representation without a regular diplomatic presence) covered other Pacific countries, including Nauru, Tuvalu, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. While undertaking the full range of diplomatic and consular functions, many Pacific posts were heavily focused on aid, provided as much for political as for developmental purposes.

The Pacific Islands Forum (originally the South Pacific Forum) was established in 1971. Unlike the South Pacific Commission, its membership is limited to countries in the Pacific – New Zealand, Australia and most smaller Pacific Island states. New Zealand diplomats played an important role in drawing up the Treaty of Rarotonga (1985) which declared forum territories nuclear-free. The forum has a secretariat based in Suva, Fiji, led by a secretary general who must be a national of a member country .

Developments in foreign policy-making

Greater public involvement

For many years New Zealand’s foreign policy was developed by a small number of ministers and officials with little public participation or knowledge. However, public interest swelled in the 1960s and 1970s, triggered especially by concern over New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the country’s apparent support for the apartheid regime in South Africa, and opposition to French nuclear-weapons testing in the Pacific. Concerned citizens lobbied politicians, demanding that policies reflect public opinion more closely. Gradually, policy formulation became more open, especially after the Official Information Act 1982 made access to official papers easier.

Today the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) actively shares information and consults with domestic interest groups, including businesspeople, Māori and NGOs when formulating policy for trade and other international negotiations.

No nukes

The foreign policy issue of visits to New Zealand by nuclear-armed or -powered ships aroused intense public interest. A waterborne protest group, the Peace Squadron, was formed to oppose such vessels entering New Zealand ports. In 1976 former Minister of Education Phil Amos joined the squadron in his sloop Dolphyn to try to prevent the US cruiser Long Beach berthing in Auckland. Amos later faced charges and was defended by lawyer David Lange. In 1984 Lange, by then prime minister, announced the nuclear-free policy that prevented further visits by vessels such as Long Beach.

Combining foreign and domestic policy

Foreign policy was once considered distinct from the domestic tasks of government. However, by the 21st century many government agencies had an international dimension to their work. Some sent staff to New Zealand diplomatic posts or as expert members of New Zealand negotiating teams. Although these representatives had objectives specific to their home agency, they contributed to achieving broader objectives for New Zealand. MFAT took a leading role in coordinating these inter-agency efforts, in Wellington and at overseas posts.

Unified overseas service

In the late 1970s a ‘unified overseas service’ was set up to improve the focus of diplomatic representation on trade and economic interests. Staff from different agencies were seconded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, serving under common terms and conditions. The unified service concept ended in 1988 when state-sector management principles changed fundamentally. In the 2010s cooperation between different government agencies was promoted by MFAT coordinating the work of agency staff. Rapidly changing communications technology has improved coordination while reducing the autonomy of overseas missions.

Expansion, contraction and re-deployment

The trend to set up new diplomatic posts abroad was not consistent over time. Periodic reviews of representation, often driven by budgetary constraints, closed a number of posts and reduced others in size in order to finance representation in more promising locations. Posts were closed in India (1981, reopened 1984), Bahrain and Peru (1990), Greece (1991), Austria (1991, reopened for UN purposes 1993), Iraq (1991) and Zimbabwe (2000). Posts were opened in Spain (1991), Turkey (1993), Vietnam (1995), South Africa (1996), Argentina (1998), Brazil (2001), East Timor (2001), Poland (2004), Egypt (2006) and Sweden (2008). Consular posts in Australian states were opened and closed more than once. Experimental ‘mini-posts’, with only one or two seconded staff, had mixed success. They extended New Zealand’s diplomatic reach but administrative burdens lessened their effectiveness.

Characteristics of foreign policy

New Zealand’s unique features

A country’s size, geographical location, history and economy all influence the way it conducts foreign policy. New Zealand is relatively remote from the world’s centres of power. It has no land borders with other countries and has always had good relations with its only large neighbour, Australia. Its population, economy and armed forces are small. It is heavily dependent on trade in a relatively narrow range of primary products for which demand and price are determined outside New Zealand, and on tourists who arrive by air. It imports capital, technology and skilled people. These characteristics mean that, unlike major powers but like most other countries, New Zealand cannot impose its will on other countries or shape events by itself. Its level of influence in the South Pacific is a partial exception to this rule.

Speaking out

The United Nations Security Council is the UN’s most powerful body, responsible for maintaining international peace and security. New Zealand has been a member of the council in 1954–55, 1966, 1993–94 and 2015-16. In 1954 New Zealand voted against the US over a CIA-backed military coup in Guatemala. As president of the council in 1994, New Zealand advocated forceful action to stop the genocide in Rwanda. New Zealand subsequently spearheaded efforts to establish the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.1

International organisations

One way New Zealand achieves its foreign-policy objectives is through active participation in multilateral organisations such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. These negotiate international norms and rules applicable to all countries, regardless of size or level of development, in areas as diverse as international trade, human rights, fisheries management, arms control, the environment and law of the sea. Participation in such bodies is on the basis that each country has equal status, which advantages smaller countries. In some multilateral negotiations New Zealand has been more prominent and influential than many other small countries, because it contributes ideas on important issues and works hard to bridge differences among the parties.

Party politics and foreign policy

New Zealand’s major political parties have broadly agreed on the country’s international political and economic objectives but sometimes differed on details or on implementation. Occasionally, serious policy disagreements have ruptured this bipartisan approach. The anti-nuclear policy and its impact on ANZUS (the agreement on military cooperation between New Zealand, Australia and the US) in the 1980s was a prime example, as were involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and relations with apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and early 1980s. The conflicts were partly between principles and pragmatism, but also between different formulations of both – for instance, whether it was in New Zealand’s interest to host nuclear-armed or –powered ships.

Foreign or economic policy?

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s 1980 observation that ‘our foreign policy is trade’2 had a grain of truth. Nevertheless, successive New Zealand governments have concluded that active participation across the full range of international issues brings benefits, even in the commercial sphere, which a narrow concentration on trade diplomacy would not deliver. The need to protect trade in certain markets, to find new markets for New Zealand exports and to diversify sources of key imports has led to significant expansion of New Zealand’s diplomatic representation. Policy stances have been adopted on many issues that were of limited relevance to New Zealand but important to partner countries. Growing economic engagement with Asia has drawn New Zealand into regional political groupings such as the East Asia Summit.


Developing a diplomatic service

Department of External Affairs

Although it was a relatively small government department, the Department of External Affairs (renamed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1970) traditionally carried extra importance within the state bureaucracy because its minister was usually the prime minister, and the secretary was concurrently head of the Prime Minister’s Department. This link was severed in 1975 when a new Prime Minister’s Department was created. The ministry’s internal structure was not affected, and became more complex as the range of policy interests broadened and additional overseas posts were opened. Expanded overseas representation, technological change and public-sector management reforms required frequent adjustments to the administration of and communications with diplomatic posts.

Ministry of External Relations and Trade

The Ministry of External Relations and Trade was set up in 1988. The trade policy functions and several staff of the disestablished Department of Trade and Industry were integrated into the mainstream of bilateral relations work. Collaboration with the newly established trade promotion agency, the Trade Development Board, was made a high ministry priority. In 1993 the department was renamed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).


A restructuring of MFAT in 2003 redefined the ministry’s aid administration responsibilities. A semi-autonomous body, NZAID, was established to administer a greatly increased aid budget on fully professional lines. Staff numbers working on aid expanded significantly, and procedures and systems changed markedly, diverging from the rest of the ministry. The National-led government elected in 2008 maintained the expanded development budget but reduced the autonomy of NZAID, which again became a mainstream ministry division, albeit a large one.

First woman

New Zealand’s first female diplomat was Southlander Jean McKenzie. She began her public-service career during the First World War as a typist and rose steadily through the Imperial Affairs Section and later the New Zealand Overseas Service. McKenzie represented New Zealand at the UN General Assembly in 1946 and was minister at the New Zealand Legation in Paris from its creation in 1949 until her retirement in 1956.

Political or diplomatic appointments

Most early heads of mission came from political careers, since New Zealand had few overseas posts before the 1960s and there were seldom openings for trained diplomats. Later, diplomats were increasingly preferred in overseas posts. However, political appointments are still made, usually in large English-speaking posts such as Washington, Ottawa, London and New York. In recent years political appointments have also been made to Niue and the Cook Islands. Political appointments are made by the government of the day and override existing diplomatic postings.

Career diplomatic service

Against politicians’ expectations, a career diplomatic service gradually evolved. Diplomatic trainees, mostly university graduates, were recruited systematically, although the volume of intakes fluctuated widely because of budgetary constraints or ideological antipathies. On-the-job training was the norm; its quality varied according to placement. Systematic language training developed only slowly and focused on difficult languages, especially Japanese and Chinese, in which groups of specialists were trained.

Māori diplomat

Charles Bennett (Te Arawa) rose from the ranks to command 28 (Māori) Battalion during the Second World War, and then worked as a senior official in the Department of Māori Affairs. In 1959 he became New Zealand’s first Māori diplomat when he was appointed New Zealand high commissioner to the Federation of Malaya (later Malaysia). Despite initial concerns that his ethnicity would prove an obstacle, Bennett was a great success as a diplomat.

The Public Service (later State Services) Commission took a key role in recruitment, promotion and setting salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions such as accommodation and leave for diplomats. Since the passage of the State Sector Act 1988, MFAT has largely determined overseas terms and conditions. These have become more flexible to address challenges such as alternative overseas career opportunities, higher staff turnover, more female, Māori and ethnic-minority staff, and dual-career marriages.

Diplomatic representation in 2020

In 2020 New Zealand had diplomatic relations with around 150 countries. In some cases this was direct representation via an embassy, consulate or other diplomatic representative based in-country. In other cases representation was indirect, via an agreement with the foreign country known as cross-accreditation.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Michael Green, 'Foreign policy and diplomatic representation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Michael Green, published 20 June 2012, updated 1 May 2016