What do diplomats do all day? This question sharpens particularly at the end of the UN General Assembly week, after the security, the soundbites, and the endless bilateral meetings (slang: 'bilat' -pron: bi-lat- : typically two middle-aged people talking as if they were countries, and those countries had just been introduced). Where are the results? Show me a treaty or two! Oh, no, the diplos reply. That's not how it works. These things take time.
Which leaves the feeling that either diplomacy is a clever rort to expend years, money and hope, or it's like telly, in that you only see a tiny amount for the efforts expended. Perhaps it's both.
Sitting in the main hall of the NZ Embassy in Washington DC, what some diplomats do became perfectly clear: they shake down agreeable Americans for Christchurch.
Called, prosaically, The New Zealand Embassy Gala Fundraiser, the event was formal (black tie) and convivial but didn't avoid Christchurch's sadness. Images played on TV screens, footage of wrecked buildings and clogged streets. The tables in the hall were labeled for streets of the city (I sat at Cambridge Terrace), and were packed with ex-Congressmen, lobbyists, expatriate New Zealanders who wanted to help, and friends of the country. Many of them had actually been in Christchurch when the quake struck, guests of the US-New Zealand Partnership forum. One couple I spoke to told me New Zealanders had saved their lives.
At the gala Cantabrian Phil Keoghan from The Amazing Race played auctioneer. 'I've never done this before,' he warned. Well, if being on a hit US show ever falls through, a second gig beckons. Embassy staff buzzed around, ensuring auction items were presented smoothly, and getting details from those who made winning bids. Ambassador and ex-Prime Minister Mike Moore took the podium several times, once to speak, and on other occasions to pump up the bidding for the various prizes, including a night at the Ambassador's residency tasting wines. "This is not a small thing you are doing for us," he told the crowd, "and it will be remembered."
The most mesmerising speech came from retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen. From 9/11 to Katrina, Allen is a veteran of managing catastrophes. Just last year the US Federal Government put him in control of the cleanup operation after BP's Deepwater Horizon well turned parts of the Gulf of Mexico into an oil slick. After telling a joke about hongi-ing ("Getting out of the taxi I dropped my house keys. I bent down to pick them up at the same time the driver did. Our faces met. -Pause- He said, 'I'm not from New Zealand.' Laughter Then he asked me out." Guffaws), Allen praised the cohesion in New Zealand society, which he likened to a body's immune system. "I call this resiliency," he said.
His last words about Christchurch were rousing, "Show us the way." As he returned to his table, Ambassador Moore hongied him.
So what does a bunch of well-upholstered Washingtonians consuming lobster tail and tenderloin beef really have to do with Christchurch's anguish?
This was a crowd that probably would donate to a cake sale, but a gala makes for greater contributions. It's a matter of scale. Americans love giving (Mike Moore says they thank you when you ask them for money), but they relish it if there are trappings: a great night out, a photo of themselves with Phil Keoghan, etc.
Also, our moment has past. The international journalists who descended on Christchurch, quickly moved to Fukushima Japan. Put it callously: this might be compared to going from a low-budget independent movie, to a Hollywood block buster. With them goes international attention. So there's a need to formalise the charitable process, which is why the group American Friends of Christchurch has been formed. They were at the Embassy last night.
After the guests left, Embassy staff and friends stood around in a space now emptied of tables, chairs and decorations. It felt like a town hall after a dance. Ambassador Moore was still talking; Phil Keoghan told stories about starting out in telly in Christchurch. Everyone was smiling as if they'd just done something worthwhile. The total raised on the night was around $NZ200,000.