PM meets men of influence while in America

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 19/06/2014

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OPINION: It was cruel coincidence that had John Key on the world stage the same day Labour was plunged into disarray.

The timing of Key's trip to America for meetings at the United Nations and the White House was always going to play into National's hands in an election year.

But the advantage of incumbency could not have been more stark as Key fielded questions about Iraq and went from the United Nations to a private lunch with Bill Clinton, while Cunliffe scrambled to pull himself out from under the mire of a domestic scandal.

Key and Clinton met up at the former US president's favourite lunch spot as New York was preparing for gridlock caused by another leader, Barack Obama, hitting town.

Obama was in Manhattan for three big fundraisers, concluding with an event at the home of Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

Key also spent the evening schmoozing. The ballroom at the Bohemian National Hall on New York's east side was the venue for a bash in support of New Zealand's bid for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. If numbers attending were any guide, New Zealand looks to have already secured the 123 votes required to win the seat.

But the lure of New Zealand wine and oysters may have been the real drawcard for the gathering of the world's UN ambassadors, who all left with a goodie bag of Kiwi olive oil.

Key said his lunch with Clinton was "very enjoyable" but it seemed that Iraq loomed large, as it will tomorrow when he is in Washington. The prime minister yesterday ruled out New Zealand offering troops or "boots on the ground in Iraq" should the US seek to build support for any acton as militant extremists threaten to overrun the country.

He also ruled out offering New Zealand special forces soldiers in a training or advisory capacity, which is the role they carried out in Afghanistan.

Key was careful, meanwhile, to spell out that New Zealand would take its lead from the UN on a response and stressed that any contribution would likely be humanitarian in nature.

He emphasised that New Zealand was "not a country out there looking for a fight".

Given that New Zealand's pitch for a seat on the Security Council is centred on an appeal to smaller states as an independently minded "honest broker' on international debates, it would have been surprising if he stated otherwise.

But it underscores the difficult line the Government must walk as it seeks to balance its Security Council ambitions with the new normal in New Zealand-US relations.

The two countries in recent years have symbolically sealed the lifting of the US freeze on relations by signing the Wellington and Washington declarations. More concrete measures have included the US dropping its long-standing ban on training and exercises with the New Zealand military.

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The quid pro quo might have arrived with the current crisis, which may be why Key was reluctant yesterday to also rule out offering the US moral support for any unilateral action in Iraq.

- The Dominion Post

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