Key in 'honest broker' pitch to UN

John Key says it's like bidding for the Olympic Games, while the New York Times calls it the Emmys for diplomatic nerds.

Certainly, the United Nations General Assembly doesn't lack for drama or star power. Barack Obama was due to sweep into New York City and the talk of the town was whether he would become the first US president to shake the hand of his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rowhani in more than three decades.

President Obama's speech to the assembly is expected to address Iran's nuclear pursuits. The other big topic? Syria, and how to rid it of chemical weapons after the death of more hundreds of Syrians last month following a chemical weapons strike.

It is into this world of high-stakes diplomacy that New Zealand is seeking to be more than a mere observer, through winning a seat on the UN Security Council.

Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully have been on a frenetic round of international diplomacy in a bid to shore up the numbers to win a temporary seat on the council when one next becomes vacant, in 2015-16.

Key flies out from Paris for the UN General Assembly in New York late tonight (NZ time). He will spend much of his short week in New York in a series of quick-fire meetings with foreign leaders, pushing New Zealand's case.

The bid was almost pro-forma when it was launched several years ago; it had been a couple of decades since New Zealand last served on the Security Council and there was a general feeling that our turn had come round again.

But Security Council seats are hotly contested. Spain and Turkey - big countries with much more clout - are seeking a seat as well and that makes the success of New Zealand's bid far less certain.

Last month, the Pacific Forum leaders backed New Zealand's bid - an important signal to the rest of the world that we were a leader in our region and had the backing of our immediate neighbours.

Other gestures of support have come in dribs and drabs. Some countries have openly pledged their support; others, like Australia, have been privately supportive from the start but haven't come out publicly to say so.

Key says New Zealand is doing OK so far - we've got about 100 votes and we need about 127.

McCully says vote numbers are not talked about. "There's a huge amount of work to be done; the Australian experience was the final three or four months were critical."

But no-one is taking anything for granted - the Security Council vote is a bit like the vote for the Labour leadership. Not everyone who says they're going to vote for you ends up up doing so.

Key raised New Zealand's bid in a meeting with French President Francois Hollande earlier today. As a permanent member of the security council, France cannot openly declare itself in support of New Zealand, Spain or Turkey.

Key said New Zealand remained "really hopeful" of success in next year's election for the temporary seats. His pitch to Hollande pointed to New Zealand's record during its most recent stint on the security council, in 1993-94. The pitch also appealed to a "sense of fairness" which suggested it was "New Zealand's turn".

"We're playing it the old-fashioned way, which is we're a good, honest broker, [with] sound independent foreign policy and we're worth voting for," Key said.

"But, in the end, countries around the world will determine whether they agree with us."

Hollande has led calls for intervention in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is accused of slaughtering thousands of his own people in a bloody civil war. Key said he had "congratulated [France] on trying to hold the Assad regime to account."

Asked if the stakes were increased in such talks by New Zealand's candidacy for the security council seat, Key said: "I think it's really important that New Zealand is predictable in what it does and we have a strong set of principles and values that underpin the country and the decisions that we make."

The purpose of Key's trip to the UN this week is to keep New Zealand's bid at the forefront of world leaders' minds and to press the flesh with leaders he wouldn't normally meet.

Meetings are pencilled in with the presidents of Togo and Ivory Coast, and other possibles on his diplomatic dance card include Costa Rica, Colombia and Benin.

Key says the trip is "critical" in pushing along New Zealand's bid. Ideally, he would have made the trip next year but it being an election year complicated things.

New Zealand's pitch is as the "honest broker" of world diplomacy. "We genuinely are that well-liked small country with an independent foreign policy, an honest broker . . . I reckon there are a lot of countries that like that and there are a lot of countries that fundamentally want to give us our turn."

The reputation as an independent broker was built on the back of New Zealand's anti-nuclear position, and also former Labour leader Helen Clark's refusal to follow our traditional allies into Iraq. The extent to which it could survive a "Syria" under National is yet to be tested.

But McCully says Syria is an example of why New Zealand wants a seat on the Security Council, which it would use as a platform for change.

"We think the Security Council actually needs to meet and formally discuss the important issues of the time."

Fairfax Media