Man with a common goal

SIR DON MCKINNON: Former Commonwealth secretary-general.
SIR DON MCKINNON: Former Commonwealth secretary-general.

When writing his memoir, Sir Don McKinnon would painstakingly complete each chapter in long hand, then farm out the drafts to friends and family to type up.

It seems like an awfully old- fashioned thing to do for a man often credited with modernising the decidedly fusty Commonwealth secretariat.

But it seems to epitomise Sir Don's attitude to the job and international diplomacy in general: whatever works.

During his eight years as secretary-general during eight often turbulent years marked by Commonwealth coups, dictatorships and bloodshed, Sir Don operated under a simple philosophy, spelt out in his new book, In the Ring.

"I can understand the reaction of people who demand that someone do something when they witness atrocities or cruelty on their TV screens," he writes.

"Yet sometimes doing something to soothe an outraged public can be counter-productive and I know that it is rare that a person or country changes their way when threatened with a communique, or at the point of a gun.

"What helps most is direction, encouragement, time, more time, and then some more time."

The downside of using patience as your chief diplomatic tool, of course, is that to the average outsider it can look like inaction.

Worse, when it fails - as in Fiji and Zimbabwe - it can look like irrelevancy.

Reviewing In the Ring, Fairfax journalist and coup veteran Michael Field lambasted Sir Don over his ineffectiveness during the Fiji coup.

Sir Don shrugs off the criticism. "I'm kind of used to Michael Field; I think the day he arrived in primary school he was a grumpy old man."

But even Sir Don, in his frank expose of the Commonwealth, paints a picture of an organisation that must work hard to be relevant, or even be heard.

Back in Wellington, he admits that in his efforts to raise the profile of the Commonwealth he had to learn to play the game.

"I found to get anything about the Commonwealth into the British press, it had to begin with the word Zimbabwe. That was the only thing they were really interested in."

But his time as secretary- general hardened, rather than weakened, his belief in the relevancy of one of the world's oldest institutions.

When Zimbabwe quit the Commonwealth, Robert Mugabe sneered that it was "a mere club".

He was not so wrong; though where they differ is that Sir Don sees that as a strength.

Membership meant that big or small, when the Commonwealth's 54 leaders entered the room, everyone was there as an equal.

"To some extent it's like an iceberg. What you see on the top is a meeting every couple of years between leaders and not much else. Underneath you've got 86 organisations whose name begins with Commonwealth.

"This is an immense resource for a secretary-general to call upon. And I did all the time."

Now he is calling upon those institutions and networks one more time, as a special envoy pushing New Zealand's bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

"When I was in West Africa last week I certainly used that card. 'You're a Commonwealth nation, we're a Commonwealth nation, we're small, you're small' You use it when you can."

In the Ring: A Commonwealth memoir Elliot and Thompson, $49.99

The Dominion Post