Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 19:54 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 19:54 | SYDNEY

Rugby diplomacy

9 September 2011 09:25

Andrew Butcher is Director of Policy & Research at the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

While New Zealand doesn't have much military hardware to boast about, its soft power is of a different order. As a New Zealander, when I travel to the region, invariably comments to me focus on the Lord of the Rings, the anti-nuclear stance of the Lange Government (for those who go further back) and the All Blacks.

Soft power diplomacy through the Rugby World Cup, starting tonight in Auckland, is not just symbolic. Money and people from New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade have been diverted to support the RWC and you won't have to go far to hear the term 'rugby diplomacy' used as a new form of New Zealand's soft power.

It's no coincidence that Murray McCully is both the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister responsible for the Rugby World Cup. And the Pacific Islands Forum was deliberately scheduled to take place this week, not just so that visiting politicians could enjoy the New Zealand-Tonga game tonight. Diplomacy and rugby are literally hand-in-glove this week. This is soft power in its most 'Kiwi' form.

As one of the biggest national exports, tourism dollars are resting on a successful RWC, especially to counter the drop in tourism numbers after the Christchurch earthquakes. That and much else besides will be a tangible pay-off. Calculations, slide-tables and Excel spreadsheets will all illustrate how, where and why the RWC has paid off the effort and cost of hosting it.

But diplomacy? You can quantify that at its crudest level through the expenditure on foreign affairs. But the long-term impact of any 'feel-good factor' derived from the RWC will be harder to assess.

When I was in Singapore earlier in the year and mentioned 'rugby diplomacy', my interlocutors laughed. Did that mean that New Zealand will tackle to the ground those with whom we don't agree? Well, perhaps not. I haven't seen an actual definition of what 'rugby diplomacy' is, but in the arsenal of soft power, it doesn't really matter how it's defined, but how it's used.

In a region where military expenditure is increasing, New Zealand could do worse than use the RWC for its diplomatic efforts. And over the next six weeks and 42 matches there will be those in the region looking not at the rugby fields but rather at the symbolism: did New Zealand divert its foreign affairs resources for logistical support only, or because it realises there's a bigger game in town, longer than just a few weeks, with much higher stakes, and that even if soft power is all New Zealand has got, it knows how to use it.

Photo by Flickr user Kiwi Flickr.