White House visit puts human face behind shopping list

17:00, Jun 19 2014
John Key
HOWZAT: Prime Minister John Key was quick to blame the state of the pitch and the media for a soft batting effort during a Cricket World Cup presentation at the United Nations. 

John Key's White House meeting was decided on the golf course over Christmas when United States President Barack Obama casually asked him, "When are you coming over, John?"

That was all it took for Obama's aides to scramble to find a place in the president's diary.

"I'm sure with his schedule many other countries are up the pecking order but the president himself wanted it to happen," says Key.

Most leaders arriving at the Oval Office have a "shopping list" in hand - topping Key's is discussions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, the TPP, which looks headed for compromise after talks between Obama and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo recently.

But an unfolding crisis in Iraq may dominate the meeting after insurgents took the country's largest oil refinery and the Iraqi government asked the US to provide air strikes.

Key has been careful not to commit to backing the US in any unilateral action, though Obama has made it clear there will be no rush to intervene.


Key's visit cements in place an informal understanding that the New Zealand prime minister visits the White House once every term of government.

But it also reinforces the difference that personal contact makes.

Jim Bolger's first invitation to the White House happened after a walk in the woods with former US president Bill Clinton on the fringes of an Apec summit. Clinton is said to have told Bolger he thought the freeze on high-level exchanges in retaliation for the anti-nuclear legislation was "bullshit".

The White House is more than just a place to meet, of course - the symbolism of the venue means that it is also useful leverage for the US president.

But we are low maintenance compared with most who walk through the Oval Office door, suggests a former insider.

"On the contrary, we're one of those countries that tries to constructively solve problems around the world."

But the importance of the face-to-face meeting between leaders cannot be underestimated, says the former official.

"Personal relationships make a difference in international relations . . . when you can actually get alongside somebody and show them that you share a lot of their objectives, and a lot of their world view, it makes it a lot easier to put a human face to their policy and get them to be empathetic to your policy."

Another former diplomat says the best piece of advice he heard given to a New Zealand prime minister before heading into an Oval Office meeting was not to succumb to "White House carpet syndrome".

Those who suffered it got overawed by the occasion and let the occasion slip by in pleasantries rather than sticking to the "shopping list".

But Key said there was no danger of that happening, with a set agenda for the meeting.

"The thing with going to the White House is it's a formalised way of working through issues which are bilaterally important. In reality, we have a lot of discussions at the margin of a variety of international forums we go to. This is formally marking out that ground."

Key's first formal meeting with the president at the White House took place against the backdrop of the global financial crisis and Afghanistan.

"But a lot of the White House visit in part signifies the continuing strength and warmth of the relationship."

As for a reciprocal visit at the end of the year, the White House has still not ruled it out. Officials have been working for months on plans for Obama to visit on the back of his trip to Australia in November for the G20 summit. A number of other world leaders are also pencilled in.

But Key said he was sceptical that Obama could squeeze the trip into his schedule. "I can't say it's impossible he would drop in on us for half a day or whatever, but I think it's unlikely."