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In the Ring: A Commonwealth Memoir

In the Ring: A Commonwealth Memoir

by Don McKinnon, Madeleine Albright (Foreword by)

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Welcome to a world of impossibly devious plots and characters—ambitious presidents and prime ministers from all corners of the world, some determined to hold onto power at any cost; a British government often with a misplaced sense of its own role in one of the world’s oldest organizations; and an organization of 300 people, externally working to


Welcome to a world of impossibly devious plots and characters—ambitious presidents and prime ministers from all corners of the world, some determined to hold onto power at any cost; a British government often with a misplaced sense of its own role in one of the world’s oldest organizations; and an organization of 300 people, externally working to help the world, while inwardly struggling along racial and geo-political lines

For the first eight years of the 21st century, Don McKinnon was the Secretary General of the Commonwealth and this was the stuff of his day-to-day life, whether facing down armed coup leaders or soothing internal staff factions. Here for the first time he reveals what was going on behind the scenes during such major events as the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth. With fascinating background detail and his predictions for the future of the Commonwealth itself, this is a compelling account of the trials and tribulations of running an international organization in a complex world.

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Elliott & Thompson
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In the Ring

A Commonwealth Memoir

By Don McKinnon

Elliott and Thompson Limited

Copyright © 2013 Don McKinnon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-908739-27-8


A Rather Unusual Route

Although I was often introduced as an international diplomat, I would usually hasten to correct that by stating that most diplomats had high academic qualifications, were multilingual and had spent a lifetime in the job. I possessed none of those characteristics.

I came from a reasonably well-off but not by any means wealthy family. My father was a professional soldier who became a general, and my mother was from a pioneering Wellington, New Zealand family. From a very early age, influenced by summer stays on an uncle's farm in the Manawatu district of New Zealand, I wanted to be a farmer.

My first real job, at age seventeen, was working on cattle, horse and dude ranches in Wyoming and Montana. This was possible because my family was living in the United States, where my father was the New Zealand Defence Attaché in Washington DC, that most beautiful city. I graduated from Woodrow Wilson high school there in June 1956, and Big Horn Wyoming was the beginning of a twenty-year trek in the world of agriculture. That stay was an introduction to the great American West and the pastoral splendour of Wyoming, and to have fun riding horses twelve hours a day and getting paid for it was a bonus.

Our family – myself, parents and four younger siblings – returned to New Zealand in 1957, and I was soon working as a roustabout and later shepherd on a 3,500-acre sheep and beef farm. This job was deemed to be near the bottom of the farming ladder and you were expected to work your way up to head shepherd, stock manager and finally manager. Each shepherd spent nearly all day on horseback monitoring 1,500-plus sheep and fifty or more beef cattle. For an eighteen-year-old it was all good fun and a steep learning curve. We were great meat eaters, and it was my job to kill and dress the sheep required for eating. But you learned first on the animals that were killed for the dogs to eat before you graduated to the carcass intended for human consumption. After a few months I could produce a respectable carcass of near-supermarket quality. We had tough horses, and they needed to be tough. This was very rough country, and I often carried a sheep back to our home base on the saddle in front of me.

Soon the government intervened. Conscription for all eighteen-year-olds was still the law, so after eighteen months I did four months of army training, passing an officer's selection board, and was posted to an artillery unit. Then it was back to farming. My father, however, was convinced I should go to university, something I resisted strongly because it would stop me farming and earning money and would make no difference to my pay at the end. Nevertheless, the pressure of his wisdom eventually sunk in, so aged twenty-two I enrolled in a two-year diploma course at what was then Canterbury Agricultural College, now Lincoln University. That was very enjoyable even if, for me, not academically successful. But in the process of studying, partying and playing rugby, I was elected the vice-president of the Students' Association.

This first foray into politics was interesting, stimulating and some fun. Politics is a drug for many, and the addiction can be very strong. I was always interested but not, I believe, addicted. However, having lived impressionable teenage years in Washington DC in the 1950s, watched the McCarthy hearings on television, stood in Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the Eisenhower second inauguration and been friends with the sons and daughters of congressmen and White House officials, I couldn't help developing a fascination with politics.

I read The Washington Post, Time and Newsweek, and was completely mesmerised in 1960 by Allen Drury's great book on Washington politics, Advise and Consent. With a father who was a senior army officer back in Wellington, politics seemed to always permeate family discussions. Former New Zealand politician John A. Lee's book, Children of the Poor, was a fascinating read and an insight into New Zealand political history.

* * *

After Lincoln, I went into the back blocks of Taihape, again as a shepherd, with the firm idea of some day owning a farm of my own. It was a slow climb up that ladder, but finally I got to manage a farm north of Auckland in 1964.

With a new job, and newly married to Tricia Moore of Taihape, this seemed like the most appropriate move towards farm ownership, but little did I know then that the local community of the East Coast Bays and my involvement in the Junior Chamber of Commerce (or Jaycees, as they were known) were to slowly change my direction. An involvement with the Auckland Debating Association, teaching communication skills for nine years to prison inmates at the Paremoremo maximum security prison and joining a political party sparked many new interests, as well as a desire to do more and be more involved in getting things done and reshaping the local community.

During a long, cold winter in 1969, probably after listening to too many flattering comments about my abilities, I became a candidate for the National Party in the 1969 election.

* * *

I was a candidate for only seven weeks prior to the November election day, but I found the whole campaign most exhilarating. I enjoyed all of it: meeting people, street-corner speeches, arguing against opponents and advocating what a government in New Zealand should be doing. The big topics were the Vietnam War, industrial stoppages and the usual array of education, health and social welfare issues.

Yes, I had caught the political bug, even though I didn't win the seat; I was a candidate again in 1972, when I was also unsuccessful but succeeded in pegging back my opponent's majority. In 1975 my wife and I had four children under ten and a big mortgage on a new property, and I had lost money on the cattle market. I had left day-to-day farming, as it was never going to deliver any wealth, and had started to work part-time in the property business. So being a candidate again in 1975 was out of the question. Of course, it was the very year my National Party won big.

In 1978 a surprising opportunity emerged when a new electorate called Albany was created in response to the constant population growth on Auckland's North Shore. With no sitting member of Parliament staking a claim to this winnable seat, I soon had a team set up to help me win.

Others thought the same, and fourteen prospective candidates lined up to seek the nomination, four of whom would ultimately become members of Parliament in subsequent elections. Having had two unsuccessful campaigns behind me that had taught me a lot, I believed I knew how to go about winning the nomination, and that I did.

So it was that on 27 February 1978, the day of my thirty-ninth birthday, I became the National Party candidate for the seat of Albany in the Auckland region. The speech to the selection committee was probably the most important speech I could ever have given, as winning launched me onto a totally new life trajectory which, with many ups and downs, has taken me to the present day.

No one can be prepared or even serve an apprenticeship to be an MP. You learn on the job, and if you enjoy the life and have some ambition, you slowly climb the greasy political pole. It's a massive change for anyone who suddenly arrives in Parliament. Some adjust easily, some thrive in this new environment and there are always a few that just never fit in.

I guess I adjusted in reasonable time and soon began to do things in an efficient way. There is always more to do in any twenty-four-hour period than you have time for, so you do have to become a good time manager and become efficient with people and paper.

The institution that I joined was very male-dominated. The senior people in the government were predominantly Second World War veterans; some had been prisoners of war. They had served their country, so in some respects they had a more balanced if slightly sceptical attitude to political life than we new and enthusiastic members. We wanted electorate offices and a twenty-four-hour schedule of meeting people, and we would be available to open any sandpit in a kindergarten. We seriously wanted change from the very managed New Zealand economy of the 1960s and 70s, and so slowly we sowed the seeds of an economic policy which was more market-orientated than that which our own right-of-centre party had been deploying for most of the post-war years.

My own first argument within our governing party caucus involved questioning the right of the postal service to compete directly with the private sector couriers who had emerged in the environment of an inefficient Post Office. They were doing what the Post Office should have been doing, and doing it very efficiently. The result was positive, as the government changed its policy and the Post Office was told to leave the private couriers alone. Other colleagues brought forward similar initiatives, and slowly our party moved into a more enlightened era.

However, there were some things the leadership under Sir Robert Muldoon was reluctant to do, so we became divided as a party and lost the 1984 election. But then the left-of-centre new Labour government that followed us moved quite violently to the right and did many of the things that should have been the prerogative of our National Party.

I slowly moved through the ranks of the parliamentary party, becoming a whip in 1980, the chief whip in 1981, the deputy leader in 1987 and, on our party winning the election in 1990, the deputy prime minister. I had understudied the health portfolio for three years and was very ready to become minister of health. However, my Prime Minister had other ideas and asked me to become minister for foreign affairs and trade. This was another life-changing event. I held the portfolio for more than nine years, the longest of anyone in that portfolio ever in New Zealand.

It was life-changing, and where did I begin? As a parliamentarian you have lots of bits of knowledge across a wide range of governmental activities, but when you become a minister not only are you the face of that portfolio, you also have to know it thoroughly. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Wellington had about 600 staff and some forty-five missions around the world. The staff were some of the brightest and best out of our universities, and now they had a minister who had been to an agricultural university, without any academic success, and was about to learn on the job. In political terms the best I had done in this area was to attend a conference of Commonwealth parliamentarians in Kenya in 1983. However, I dived into the job with enthusiasm and some deserved modesty. It entailed a lot of travel, a lot of getting to know fellow foreign ministers and their key officials, but most importantly moving on the policy issues upon which the party had campaigned.

Repairing a fractured relationship with the United States brought about by the nuclear issue, which had declared New Zealand 'Nuclear Free', was at the top of the list. However, it was only after six months in the job that I realised that this issue seemed to permeate every other issue. Wherever I went the first question from a fellow foreign minister was, 'How are you getting along with the US?', as all knew that this relationship was an important cornerstone of a country's foreign policy. It was not worth being offside with the United States.

Of course, the nuclear issue had been divisive in New Zealand. Within the Foreign Affairs team there were those who were immensely proud of this stance and defended it robustly. Others thought it was one of the more stupid things New Zealand had ever done and just held their counsel. I was caught. It was a government policy which I didn't think was that sensible and so I made it clear that, yes, we would adhere to it, it was there, but we were not marketing this policy to the world.

The other was the relationship we had with South Africa and the imminent end of apartheid. In New Zealand, a rugby- dominated country, playing sport with South Africa led to pressure from those who felt that only the total international isolation of South Africa would bring about internal political changes. We were a very divided country on that topic as well; unfortunately, as we learned from the impact it had on other issues, we were playing with fire.

Very soon the benefits of multilateralism became apparent to me. I quickly realised that many of these meetings with my peers held the potential to transact very useful other business. Via APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Post-Ministerial Conference, the Pacific Islands Forum and, of course, the Commonwealth, there was much fertile ground for bilateral meetings as well as for keeping up with issues and their background. The UN is the one place where you can and should be able to meet everyone you need to at the General Assembly in September (although it's so chaotic with 190-plus leaders or ministers and entourages that if you meet half of those you wish to, that will be regarded as successful).

The challenges of policy-making were fascinating. To convert the aspirations of a political party in opposition to workable policy is always a demanding exercise. I soon found that most Foreign Affairs officials took great delight in stretching their minds across the possibilities within these aspirations. It seemed as much an intellectual challenge, a mental exercise, as a means to an end. It would be an understatement to say I was well served by officials. Those I worked with put in extraordinary hours when required. They all worked hard, thought clearly and knew how to get the optimum result. As a small country you just don't have the battalions to threaten anyone; you must get the intellectual work right, and thereafter it is hard graft. Then it's a question of using the maximum leverage you can among your range of contacts around the globe.

The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs was, and still is, an essentially career department. Many join from university and stay there for most of their working life. If there was one deficiency I felt needed remedying, it was the need for these very competent people to get out and tell the public what they were doing. I suggested to the successive chief executives Graeme Ansell, Richard Nottage and Neil Walter that all returning ambassadors should get on the speaking circuit – Rotary, the Chambers of Commerce and other luncheon clubs, the Institute of International Affairs and the trade bodies handling New Zealand's large commodity exports – and tell people what was going on in the world. To keep talking to New Zealanders, I later initiated a series of seminars around New Zealand educating people on how to deal and trade with Asia. There seemed to me to be a strong need to get to know Asia and its people because of the expanding influence they would have on New Zealand in the future. We were successful in Asia, but for most Kiwis it was alien territory.

These seminars, however, were so successful that we then, with the help of the private sector, set up Asia 2000, the name suggesting we should achieve much by the year 2000. This organisation has now evolved into the Asia New Zealand Foundation and is still the principal body helping New Zealanders to understand Asia.

I also initiated the establishment of the New Zealand Institute for Strategic Studies to encourage independent debate on foreign and defence policy topics, the funding for which came from Foreign Affairs and Defence. In doing so I created a group that would often challenge our foreign policy, but at least they did so with more intellectual strength than the peace groups the media would normally turn to for a contrary opinion.

For me, reaching out to the community is important, if only to inform the taxpayers how their dollars are spent.

We campaigned actively and successfully for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which brought to the fore many foreign policy issues we would not otherwise have needed to be concerned about. Having a drink at the Libyan mission in New York to get their support was all part of the job at hand. The issues in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia and Rwanda, in particular, were very demanding. Working with our key officials we often had to make overnight decisions – and get it right.

There's a curious thing about foreign ministers all over the world: the longer you are there, the more senior you become and the more wisdom you are perceived to have. This obviously helps, because even from a small country, it gives you more clout. By 1995 I was one of the long stayers and found that getting doors opened was much easier. I did not contemplate beating the seventeen-year record of Hans Dietrich Genscher of West Germany or Dr Velayati of Iran, and I was probably a bit lucky to make it into a third three-year term in 1996.

* * *

The Commonwealth came dramatically to my attention when New Zealand hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Auckland in 1995. As foreign minister I had to play a significant role in most events. Strange as it may seen, foreign ministers were not major players in the Commonwealth family. The CHOGM was all about leaders getting together every two years, and there were many other ministerial meetings – finance, education, health, youth, sports, women's and other ministers all got together. But there appeared no specific need for foreign ministers to be involved, even though the foreign ministries did all the legwork for many of the meetings.


Excerpted from In the Ring by Don McKinnon. Copyright © 2013 Don McKinnon. Excerpted by permission of Elliott and Thompson Limited.
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Meet the Author

Sir Donald Charles "Don" McKinnon is a former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of New Zealand. He was the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations from 2000 until 2008. During his time at the helm of the Commonwealth, he was involved in many serious episodes, including the suspension of Zimbabwe's membership and George Speight's attempted coup in Fiji. Sir Donald is a Vice-President of the Royal Commonwealth Society, and lives in New Zealand.

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