COMMENT:

From the moment Chris Liddell first met Ambassador Tim Groser at our Washington embassy's renowned inauguration gala in January 2017, it was obvious that New Zealand had at the very least "a friend" in the White House.

A sounding board, if not a direct ally. The latter would be an impossibility given that Liddell's role is to serve the President, not his home country.

Liddell has played a careful hand in his dealings with New Zealand media since becoming first an assistant to the President and then deputy chief of staff.

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But it's no accident that he was perched just behind Trump's right shoulder in the photograph the White House released this week of the President signing the Knowledgeable Innovators and Worthy Investors Act (or KIWI Act).

This legislation — whose effects will be mirrored here — clears the way for NZ nationals to get better access to the United States to pursue trade and investment via the E1 trading and E2 investor visa programme.

It has irked New Zealand businesspeople to see their Australian counterparts waltz through US borders on these prized visas while they have had to go through laborious procedures to gain entry to the US to do business, or flagrantly breach the rules by carrying out business in the US on what are in effect tourist visas.

It's also been a long time in the making.

As the American Chamber of Commerce noted, "New Zealand is one of our nation's important strategic and economic partners.

New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance together with the US, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia and is the only member of the alliance whose citizens are not eligible to apply for E-1 and E-2 visas.

"Total foreign direct investment from New Zealand to the United States is valued at over half a billion dollars. However, New Zealand businesses have found that the lack of access to E-1 and E-2 visas has hampered their ability to increase trade and investment in the United States. By allowing New Zealanders to apply for these visas, the KIWI Act aims to expand business and investment opportunities between the two nations."

Liddell hasn't claimed any particular role in getting the President's signature attached to the act. And there were anxious moments on both sides as key influencers waited for the final move even though it had been passed by both houses.

"I was delighted to see the KIWI Act pass," Liddell said via a PR mate in New York.

"My congratulations to Ambassadors Groser and [Scott] Brown for their outstanding effort in promoting the US-NZ relationship."

But Liddell continues to face considerable scepticism in New Zealand.

"Shame on Chris Liddell" blared the opening salvo by my friend and fellow columnist Matthew Hooton earlier last month. Liddell's crime? The fact that he had given his support — as deputy chief of staff to US President Donald Trump — to the Trump trade agenda.

The Kiwi in the White House was no friend of NZ's free trade protagonists (of which Hooton and I are clearly both members).

Mutual business friends have also been surprised that Liddell remains in the White House, such is their personal antipathy to Trump and their belief that as a former Kiwi businessperson he is selling his soul for adjacency to power.

But he has lent — and continues to lend — that proximity to assist New Zealand in a low-key way.

In New Zealand recently, Liddell shot the breeze with Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters (then Acting PM) on the US-NZ relationship. Peters has since confirmed the meeting. But he has said little of substance about what they discussed.

It would appear likely that Peters would have sought an early read on the the US attitude to the case New Zealand is pursuing to gain an exemption from the steel and aluminium tariffs which will have an adverse effect on relevant exporters. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has written to the President on this matter.

Then there is the overall world trade environment, where NZ's respect for the multinational rules-based order runs up against Trump's desire for a more self-interested approach on America's part.

And there is the apparent push for both countries to dust off and complete negotiations on an earlier trade and investment framework, which stalled when the push for the Trans Pacific Partnership got under way.

This will not be an easy move.

Former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, Dr Kurt Campbell, said in NZ recently that each country is on its own in terms of forging relations with the US.

He pointed out that New Zealand has some big advantages, citing a very good trade relationship with the US and strong leadership — "[NZ] play golf, we excel in matters of physical strength."

He advised New Zealand to be purposeful around co-operation and principled about calling out the US on difficult issues.

This advice — even if from a man who served the Obama Administration — appears to have resonated.

Before leaving NZ for Singapore — where he was to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — Peters opened up with a strong message to the US not to harm the New Zealand economy via tariffs. As with the recent messaging to China, it was direct and delivered from a principled position.

In all, this has been a good week for New Zealand diplomacy.

New chapters have yet to be written.

But Groser — who took some risks when he initially employed newbie Washington lobbying firm SPG to work on the "ground game" — has had his judgment vindicated.

The "Trumpies" may have horrified diplomats of a more genteel persuasion, but they helped to get the job done.