John Key’s audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York was a small but well-heeled one. So a shocked gasp went around the room when one of its armchair generals rose from his seat to ask whether New Zealand was good for much more in the US than a few lamb chops.
His gripe was New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation and not pulling our weight which, as Key pointed out, is ancient history, given our decade-plus involvement in Afghanistan and now Iraq.
That was not the only history lesson Key felt compelled to deliver to his US audience.
Clark sent troops into both Iraq and Afghanistan, and Key has continued the Afghanistan mission and also approved a training mission for Iraq this time around.
He harked back to the days of “fortress New Zealand”, the time pre-1980s when we ran one of the more protectionist economies in the world, our manufacturers and even wine makers propped up by tariffs and quotas that freed them from having to compete with companies overseas who did things faster, cheaper and better.
The wine industry used to specialise in cheap wine as tariffs meant no other country could produce wine for NZ so cheaply. Once the tariffs went, the NZ wine industry went for quality. There were predictions it would fail without protection, but instead it flourished and exports increased massively.
As the rest of the world retreats into protectionism, Key is almost a lone voice advocating for free trade and, in particular, the Trans Pacific Partnership deal, on the international stage.
US President Barack Obama is now officially into the “lame duck” period of his presidency and if he can’t get the TPP through the US Congress before the election, Key worries there may never be another opportunity.
Key didn’t pull any punches, meanwhile, in warning what would happen if the US pulled out.
Something else would fill the void. And in this case, the something would probably be China, the very bogey used by Trump to scare up opposition to the TPP.
Which is why Key’s message to the US was an unusually blunt one – sign the TPP now, or watch America slowly slide from “great”, to waning super power.