Key on the world stage

Tracy Watkins at Stuff reports:

When stepped into Helen Clark’s shoes on the international stage, foreign policy was, by his own admission, his weak suit.

Four-and-a-half years later, he has made a trip to China a near annual event, crossed the White House threshold twice, though only once to see President Barack Obama, accumulated a collection of silly shirts – and brought a very different style to the role of prime minister.

Academic Stephen Hoadley admits Mr Key has surprised on the upside.

“He’s done better than many expected. His quiet manner but well-informed discourse, I think, has impressed leaders.

“They don’t feel threatened by him but they do recognise he has good control of his portfolio, and the foreign affairs portfolio, can discuss it succinctly and accurately, and consequently he makes a pleasant conversationalist.”

It is very clear that Key has forged good relationships with Obama, Cameron, Gillard and Harper – the four main Anglosphere leaders.

It is certainly true that Mr Key’s engaging manner has won him admirers. In 2010, after he attended the Nuclear Security Summit in the United States at the invitation of Mr Obama, US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell enthused about the warmth of Mr Key’s manner.

Dr Campbell described how Mr Key and Mr Obama “really hit it off”. “… [Mr Key] made quite the splash, actually. He has a very engaging manner. That’s quite attractive to Americans. He’s very straightforward.”

Another long-term foreign affairs observer in this country suggests that one of the attractions with Mr Key is his background in the financial and banking industry. Other foreign leaders are interested in his insight and “take” on current events and “I wouldn’t be surprised if that played a part in [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel seeing him on this trip.”

Talking of Europe I see Ireland has voted for the fiscal treaty. Will be interesting to see what the Greek elections do.

Nowadays, he wears the role like a favourite suit. “I’ve become much more comfortable. I know most of the leaders, I think I accurately understand the issues, understand what it is we are advocating for, and I think it is a critical part of what any prime minister does.

“It’s about building … not only just profile on the international stage and standing up for the things New Zealand believes in, it’s also about economic expansion and the opportunity for us to grow our export markets.”

But in those early days he was not too proud to lean on his one-time rival, Miss Clark, and often texted her for advice.

As Trevor does also 🙂

Mr Key has cultivated other relationships by text; he and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard are visibly close. They text each other not just about trans-Tasman matters – they were also in contact by text when Ms Gillard recently stared down a leadership challenge by her predecessor, Kevin Rudd.

“I’ve got a really good relationship with Julia Gillard … even though we’re opposite in terms of political leanings,” Mr Key says. “She’s been really good to New Zealand … committed to the relationship and quite helpful. I mean, I talk to her quite a bit.”

Howard and Clark also had a very good trusting relationship. It is good to be able to work across political boundaries.

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