His name would mean little to most NZers let alone further afield, but he has been a man of some import in the relationship between NZ and the rest of the world. He is a career diplomat and has held many important posts including Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Ambassador to the UN in New York, and Ambassador to the European Community in Brussels. He also held the post of President of the UN Security Council. All in all, his name would be widely recognised and respected in the arena of international diplomacy.
The book is appropriately titled "Presence of Mind; New Zealand in the World". The predominant theme, as one would expect, comes from O'Brien's personal experience and knowledge of NZ's place in the international community, and of the way that successive NZ governments have directed our involvement in world affairs.
His expression of the historic background to modern diplomacy he describes as -
In 1900 there were some 60 independent states; by 2000 there were nearly 190...
...the result is that the majority of states today (103 countries) have populations of 10 million or less. Of these, some 87 countries have populations of no more than 5 million... When the 1945 UN Charter was signed by the original 50 members, New Zealand was amongst the six smallest signatories... Going back to 1900, New Zealand was, amongst the established democracies, one of the very few that extended suffrage to include women and indigenous people, groups who were still [electorally at least] disadvantaged in other and more assertive democracies for up to half a century or longer.
Among the first of the diplomatic parameters O'Brien runs through, centres on "Values". The principles of life, liberty and core economic and social freedoms form an unprecedented structure for the (now) history of the second half of the last century. The point is made (to my surprise) that the UN has now "some 67 agreements, codes and standards". O'Brien continues -
All of these conventions derive from the UN Charter... There exists in the Charter however inherent deficiencies that in practice substantially shackle the human rights cause. First, its provisions are designed to promote, not guarantee, human rights.... The rights are not legally enforceable, and anyway the international community possesses no means for such a task.
The primary observation O'Brien makes is the persistent resistance of the "West" to "accountability for their own perceived human rights infractions". For that reason, human rights like foreign policy must "start at home" rather than being imposed from without.
Now if you think that human rights is a peculiar angle from which to start a treatise on diplomacy and foreign relations, O'Brien ties the two in this way -
The reason why human rights occupy so prominent and formal a place in international affairs is because powerful nations believe that it is in their self-interest that the issue should figure in this way. It is a precise illustration of the part power plays in shaping international politics...
Until now, I must confess, the most prominent aspects of NZ foreign policy were (in my mind) our anti-nuclear policy, our occasional involvement in (so-called) peace-keeping missions, and apparently desperate attempts at retaining a livable overseas income from the sale of our agricultural products. In that last quotation there are two words that, for me at least, have epitomised the processes of international relationships; self-interest and power.
However O'Brien describes the process of diplomacy in these terms -
It is a product of managing [the] tensions of living on this planet with others who are different, and who are either too close or too important to ignore. Modern diplomacy ... is the conduct of business between governments by peaceful means... activity to promote and protect a nation's political and economic well-being; ... entails dialogue and bargaining; ... acting upon that which is relevant to the national interest.
Which leads to -
For small countries in particular, it is a reactive business, often involving nimble improvisations in the face of intractable events. New Zealand is no exception to that rule.
Diplomacy in the twentieth century was transfigured by the revolution in communications technology and the rise of the media... .
He continues when discussing "God Defend New Zealand - From What?" -
Globalisation ... has tamed the tyranny of remoteness [of New Zealand] while retaining a moat of protection against trans-boundary risks... [such as] the spread of crime, of weapons, of drugs [the current amphetamine epidemic accepted], of illegal immigration, of health epidemics (both human and animal), and of terrorism.
As importantly, and another aspect which I had not previously considered, are the risks associated with that process; the risk of mis-assessment or incorrectly formulated response -
The absense of a well-defined concept of risk, or of a refined ability to assess risk, is therefore an occupational hazard of foreign policy making...
exaggeration [of risk] is part of a venerable tradition amongst foreign policy makers to vindicate chosen policies or expansion of military power or indeed both together.
To define risks or threats to a country's security merely, or principally, in military terms in today's world is a false image of reality. True security depends on much more than military prowess, on factors such as economic strength, competitive industry, quality of education, adequate public health, wholesome environment, social welfare and effective leadership.
I am going to leave it there for the moment. It is a convenient point to stop; I have been brewing this for the past week; it leads to the next step quite nicely.
Points to note -
As is my practice, my comments and clarifications inside of quoted portions from O'Brien are enclosed in square brackets .
I have left out (and hence the ellypses scattered throughout the quotes) those portions of O'Brien's writing where he has given extensive descriptive and clarification of the fundamental statements I have extracted.