With the passing of Ian Stewart in Wellington at the age of 96, New Zealand has lost one of the last of a generation of diplomats which launched the country’s foreign service after World War 11.
Stewart joined the Dept of External Affairs after wartime service in the Army. He rapidly became a European specialist and developed an exhaustive knowledge of the continent and its cultures, languages and, of course, post war Britain.
He had several postings but one in particular appealed to him. He was No 2 at the New Zealand Embassy in Paris when General ee Gaulle was president of France.
One event he recalled was a dinner to which he had been invited by de Gaulle because the NZ ambassador was out of the country.
This was at the time of one of the regular West Germany/Berlin crises between the West and the old Soviet Union. Moscow had been making particularly bellicose noises and de Gaulle asked his guests around the table whether they expected the Soviets would move into West Berlin.
The great and good all offered their views – mainly yes, it might happen – until it was Ian’s turn. He reflected a moment then said no, he didn’t think they would. They wouldn’t risk a nuclear conflagration over Berlin.
Silence. De Gaulle looked at him, paused then said (the equivalent of) “You are quite right. I do not think they would take such a risk.”
Ian Lachlan Gordon Stewart became a leading trade policy expert and hit his straps in the difficult days of the 1960s and 70s when Britain first explored joining the then Common Market and the bulk of New Zealand’s dairy, meat and wool exports went to the UK.
He beat a regular path to Europe alongside ministers including Sir John Marshall, then deputy prime minister and trade minister during the difficult days of hard-nosed negotiations when it looked as though London would throw NZ to the wolves and abandon the trade.
Patiently he and a small group of colleagues from the department and the old Industries and Commerce Department hammered out a what resulted in a reasonable deal – but only after long days (and nights) of hard bargaining and Marshall threatening to use what was then the nuclear weapon of telling the UK press that London was abandoning NZ despite two world wars of support.
Common sense prevailed and the negotiators crafted a reasonable deal. But this was only half the story – a similar campaign had to be waged in Europe. France would not have a bar of NZ sheep and lamb imports and its farmers waged a bitter campaign.
Stewart and other NZ diplomats in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands worked hard and convinced their European counterparts that NZ imports would not bring down the whole house.
West Germany and its capital at the time, Bonn, became a familiar place and NZ’s successful treaty negotiations were largely the result of German pressure on its European colleagues.
What a curious contrast – on the NZ side, its ministers and diplomats had fought Germany in the Second World War and vice-versa on the other side.
Ian, like his equally tough-minded contemporary Malcom Templeton, was never reluctant to provide uncomfortable hard news to ministers on global politics. Neither took prisoners and they provided a greater perspective to ministers who tended to view the world from Queen Street or Lambton Quay. We can be grateful for their intellectual capacity and fortitude.
In the 1980s Stewart was appointed one of two deputy secretaries. He then decided to leave the foreign service and embarked on a highly successful career in merchant banking.
He never forgot his service and was always ready and willing to consult and counsel junior colleagues.