A meeting at the White House with Barack Obama this week is the highlight of John Key's diplomatic calendar for the year. But a side trip to New York to bolster New Zealand's bid for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council is shaping up as even more crucial. Tracy Watkins reports from New York.
The stakes are high and it is turning increasingly ugly.
Seething beneath the polite diplomacy surrounding New Zealand's bid for a stint on the United Nations Security Council is a story of desperate courtship and dirty tactics.
The knives are even out for former prime minister Helen Clark as her name is increasingly touted for the top job at the UN in 2016. Such is the desperation of the three competing nations for a seat on the Security Council - Spain, Turkey and New Zealand - the speculation about Clark is being said by some Government insiders to have played into the hands of our opponents by making us look ''greedy''.
There has even been an international whispering campaign that New Zealand only wants the Security Council seat to leverage Clark into UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's job when his term is up.
As Prime Minister John Key prepares for a round of diplomatic speed dating at the UN in New York this week, it's no wonder questions about Ban Ki-Moon's successor have become highly sensitive.
But Clark has no truck with suggestions that she may influence the outcome.
''New Zealand is running a full-blooded campaign for the security council. I'm not running a full blooded campaign for anything. The New Zealand campaign should just get on and do its bid.''
It was Clark, of course, who first launched New Zealand's bid for the Security Council seat back in 2004.
One of the first things Clark impressed on Key after the change of power was that New Zealand should press on with its bid.
National weighed up the pros and cons and agreed.
But a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Some long time diplomatic insiders suggest there have been two points during that race at which New Zealand should have seriously considered pulling its bid.
The first was when Turkey declared its hand, turning the contest into a three way race for the two non-permanent seats in our region. Turkey has been running an aggressive campaign for a semi-permanent presence on the Security Council and has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money at its bid, including at Africa - which, with its 53 votes - represents a powerful voting group in the 193 seat UN general assembly.
Turkey has not been afraid either to tread on New Zealand's toes in a region where we consider ourselves to have the home team advantage, the Pacific.
This month, the Turkish Government flew the leaders of 14 Pacific states including Kiribati, Nauru, Samoa, Palau, Tuvalu and Vanuatu to Istanbul - ostensibly to discuss areas of cooperation in sustainable development.
But no one will have been under any illusion that Pacific votes are what Turkey wants as quid pro quo for its aid promises.
Our Government considers it has the edge in the Pacific but as everyone acknowledges it is notoriously difficult to gauge who is really telling the truth because the vote is by secret ballot. That was the reason for Key's barnstorming run through the Pacific earlier this month.
It was chiefly aimed at reminding those Pacific nations that our shared history goes back a lot further than Turkey.
But if Turkey's entry to the race was one ''break point'' during our six year campaign, the second also had a significant impact on the campaign.
That was Australia's decision to run for a seat ahead of New Zealand; something viewed by some as the time-honoured Australian strategy of ''doing the dirty'' on their trans-Tasman cousin.
Publicly, the Government would never couch it in those terms. But privately there is an acknowledgement within Government circles that Australia winning a seat in 2013 for a two year term damaged New Zealand's chances.
Some Australian officials had even acknowledged that fact, says one senior government source.
Making the pill harder to swallow was the view by some of the Aussie kick-in-the-guts as a personal ploy by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd to shore up his chances of securing Ban Ki-Moon's job for himself.
A more serious concern is Australia reneging on aid promises totalling billions of dollars in support of their bid.
A change of Government and Tony Abbott's austerity drive have put some of those projects at risk.
That could make some UN member states look sideways at New Zealand - a risk our Government acknowledges, and counters by saying it has been careful not to make big aid promises that it can't keep.
But while the Government insists it has not been throwing money at the bid, there have been huge resources directed at the campaign, including new diplomatic posts opened in Africa and the Caribbean, the diversion of considerable resources from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a time of budget restraint and staffing turmoil, and the appointment of several special envoys including former prime minister Jim Bolger and former Commonwealth secretary general Don McKinnon.
The Government has also wooed around 60 UN-based diplomats down under with all expenses paid travel, putting them up at the best and most expensive resorts, and hosting them for dinners and wine tasting evenings.
One group was also hosted at Government House by Key, a sign of how seriously the Government is taking their visits.
More are due before the vote in October.The Government has even flown Labour foreign affairs spokesman David Shearer - a former UN boss - to New York to impress upon wavering diplomats that it will be business as usual, even if there is a change of government in New Zealand.
It is a huge investment for what seems like a fleeting presence on the Security Council - if successful, New Zealand's term would last just two years.
But as Government insiders point out, for those two years we get to sit around the ''big table'' with the movers and shakers - China, France, the Russian Federation, Britain and, of course, the world's super power, America.
The last time we sat at a table where the stakes were so high was more than 20 years ago, when New Zealand last served on the Security Council. If we miss out this time, it could be another 20 years before the opportunity comes round again.
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