Our man in Washington

Last updated 05:00 06/02/2011

Mike Moore's official photograph with Barack Obama in the Oval Office after he presented his credentials as New Zealand ambassador to the US.

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Mike Moore has rarely been out of the public eye since launching his political career nearly 40 years ago. In his first sit-down interview as New Zealand ambassador to the United States, he talks to James Robinson about the impact of WikiLeaks and our ties to Uncle Sam.

WHEN MIKE Moore first faced the media after being appointed New Zealand's ambassador to the United States, in January last year, he seemed increasingly perturbed by an early run of aggressive questions.

"I'm not a lifestyle guy – if you learn I'm playing golf, shoot me in the back of the head," he retorted gruffly to one journalist.

One year later, settled into his job in Washington, Moore is far more relaxed. "I'm enjoying it more than I thought and probably more than I should," Moore says. He has been hosted by President Barack Obama and his wife, and presented his credentials as ambassador in the Oval Office. His job takes him into contact with the State Department, senators, congressmen and congresswomen, and sees him networking with lobbyists, unions and the extensive network of expat New Zealanders. Moore and wife, Yvonne, live in the ambassador's residence, near the embassy.

Arriving in Washington in August last year has made Moore, with 27 years of service for the Labour Party, an arm of the National government. He left parliament before Prime Minister John Key entered, but current Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully is a former sparring partner. McCully and Moore's political rivalry dates back to 1972, when an 18-year-old McCully campaigned against Moore when he took the Eden electorate seat at the age of 23. There has been no conflict, Moore says, with both sides bringing maturity and a sense of humour to the situation. "I'm walking with the minister of trade, and you laugh to each other, that I used to be his boss and now he's my boss, and you start giggling," he says.

Richard Nixon was president of the United States when Moore was first elected to parliament – and nearly 40 years on he is still our youngest-ever elected politician. Moore has been a public figure for two generations, from young politician through to prime minister, head of the World Trade Organisation, public statesman, author, and now, our man in the United States. Where many politicians have faded from view, Moore has kept going, from one high visibility post to the next.

Moore's is such a familiar face that it's hard not to think of him as an old friend when we meet. He is a warm, laconic interview subject, who fetches glasses of water for guests himself. His office – in the New Zealand Embassy on Observatory Circle in Georgetown – lacks pretension. There are no trinkets or bad art, only a serene view over Dumbarton Oaks Park. The embassy sits in the shadows of the monolithic British Embassy, not far from the Naval Observatory and vice-president's estate. Once inside, it's an antipodean cocoon where New Zealand accents greet the ear.

Moore's demeanour is softer as ambassador. As he drapes himself across a couch in his office, he makes a show of pausing, on occasion, before responding to questions. He'll think something over in his head, then smile, to let you know that, "I can't say that." It is a tease, but Moore respects the need for a clear line of communication as ambassador. For someone with a reputation for running off at the mouth – Moore famously declared victory for Labour incorrectly in the 1993 election – it seems a sly nod to wanting to let on more than he can.

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Moore's enthusiasm for the position has already impressed those who have worked with him. Anna Gestro, North American regional manager for KEA, a global network of New Zealanders abroad, says he has been "always out there. He is very approachable, and absolutely a man on a mission".

Moore's mission, made clear in media interviews by McCully when Moore was appointed, is to take his high-level experience in global trade negotiations and use it to help New Zealand secure a trade-agreement of quality with the United States. But as ambassador to the United States, he will also oversee a busy political operation, incorporating New Zealand's customs, police, political, trade and security interests in America.

TWO SIZEABLE media events hang over Moore's first months in the job. The Wellington Declaration, signed on November 4, is an agreement between New Zealand and the US that is heavy in symbols of friendship and feather light in specifics. It was followed weeks later by WikiLeak's airing of America's diplomatic cables. These developments demonstrate the complexity of diplomatic relationships, underlining the gulf between what can be said between countries in public and in private. The implications of each should reverberate through Moore's time as ambassador.

Of greater global significance are the 250,000 secret diplomatic cables leaked through WikiLeaks. The story has turned into an international soap opera, but locally, the leaks revealed several incidents between New Zealand and the United States. The cables aired American complaints that New Zealand was courting China and France to nullify American influence in the Pacific, that our declining military was a signal New Zealand did not take its security commitments seriously, and that the streets of our capital city were rife with pick-pocketing and street scams.

"New Zealanders say worse things about each other every day in parliament," Moore says now. Moore toggles between annoyed, fearful, amused and nonplussed when discussing the leaks. The material brought a lot of opinion and chatter into public discussion and Moore is wary of people reading too much into it. The embassy needs space for privacy, to protect government negotiating positions, and to talk privately without reproach. "If you can't negotiate in private, you've got a problem," he says sternly.

The caustic nature of some cables played into the public perception of longstanding tension in the relationship between New Zealand and the United States – harking back to the nuclear-free declaration of the 1980s that sent American ships away. The Wellington Declaration becomes even more important as a public display of friendship in light of the leaked material.

Signed on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to New Zealand, the Wellington Declaration was noted, rightly, as having no concrete substance. It is a document of public admiration, featuring broad promises to discuss and co-operate in a variety of areas: climate change, security, trade and the military. Moore thinks that focusing too closely on the sweeping language misses the point. The document provides New Zealand with an invaluable foundation to draw from, with one of the Obama administration's top officials publicly affirming support for New Zealand.

A key phrase of Moore's throughout our interview is that "the needle has moved". New Zealand is no longer at arm's length in Washington, unable to place key meetings, and Moore sees a clear upswing in energy in the US-New Zealand friendship in the past 12 months. The United States is looking to boost its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, where it has not been particularly active. Strategically, New Zealand now becomes a key ally. "The doors are open," Moore says. He is pleased a signal was sent to combat suspicion and show New Zealanders that the United States is a close friend. The chill in the relationship following the nuclear dispute puzzles Moore. "I think we talked too much for about 10 years too loudly, in a megaphone," he says.

JON JOHANSSON, a Victoria University political scientist, agrees. "With the relationship bursting forward, and after the long hiatus, there was an American recognition that a declaration was needed to rhetorically reward and signal the change to us by effectively saying, `You're a stubborn, pesky lot, but we need you."'

The warming relationship is especially timely considering New Zealand and the United States are at the same trade-negotiating table. The United States is one of five countries negotiating to join the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP) – originally signed in 2005 between New Zealand, Chile, Brunei and Singapore. The TPP closely mirrors a traditional free trade agreement, aiming for an elimination of trade tariffs between the countries involved by 2015. A direct free trade agreement with the United States has been elusive, with New Zealand's nuclear-free stance a major roadblock.

Moore says a one-to-one free trade agreement would not mean as much as it used to in today's highly globalised economy. "The world has changed so rapidly," Moore says. The TPP offers "technically" the same benefits as free trade with the US, and Moore sees strength in having nine countries at the negotiating table. Prime Ministers Key and Clark have echoed Moore's view. The deal is a major priority, and Moore's trade expertise as a former prime minister, minister of trade, and head of the World Trade Organisation, is one of the reasons he is in the ambassador's seat.

The timetable for an agreement is ambitious, with a deal hoped for by the Apec conference in Hawaii in November. But signs are positive, and Moore is extremely hopeful that the deal will go ahead, with the United States on board. "I'd be enormously disappointed if we didn't get this through," he says.

John Mullen, president of the US-NZ Council, concurs. The United States' wish to boost its profile in Asia and the Pacific means that there is incentive on all sides to make this deal work. "New Zealand is a trading nation and it has to be. The United States, less so, but it is realising the importance of boosting its exports," he says.

The United States' House of Representatives poses a potential roadblock, traditionally protective of its own agricultural interests when it comes to passing free trade agreements. Mullen is hopeful that these issues can be addressed – when, and if, they arise. Victoria University's Jon Johansson, meanwhile, is suspicious. "I remain sceptical about the TPP because of the United States farm lobby, the US congress, and the economic pressures on congressmen and women who seek re-election every two years, as well as the moribund and dysfunctional US senate," he says.

Negotiating a major trade agreement is an interesting position for Moore. After departing the World Trade Organisation, he has been an advocate for bringing greater ethics and values to the global economy, views he still holds close. "A market without rules and values and regulations is not a free market, it is a black market," he says.

Moore says he puts his views across but is aware of his place in the scheme of New Zealand's foreign relations. "I'm not the chief negotiator, I'm not the minister, as I'm reminded a tad too often," he laughs. Moore's enthusiasm for the changing global market is obvious. His mind is trade wired and he expounds at length on how the world has changed in the last two decades. The world is interconnected, inextricably linked.

Moore adapts a similar philosophy when thinking about the 700,000 New Zealanders living abroad. The ambassador has a fierce admiration for successful expats and sees effectively aligning this foreign network as central to his success in the new job. Moore believes in the idea of global citizenship. As he winds up our interview, he references Churchill's 1943 speech to Harvard University. "The empires of the future, are the empires of the mind," Churchill said. "Every Kiwi who leaves home suddenly becomes patriotic, they all become mini-ministers of trade and tourism and they all want to help in some way," Moore says.

Between working with the expat community, working on trade agreements, and cementing recent gains in the New Zealand-US relationship, Moore has a full plate. But he's smiling, excited for what's to come.

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