The mood seemed a little bit sombre with President Obama in the Oval Office?
No. He has got an awful lot on his plate. If you look at the whole of the Middle East, they have been desperately trying to get peace in Israel and Palestine and that hasn't worked at this point. Iraq, they've had a war that cost two to three trillion dollars and now they are on the brink of what looks a little bit like a civil war ... And they lost 4,800 people. That's the thing. They lost a huge number of people and it cost trillions of dollars. And then Syria and Yemen, they face plenty of challenges. I think there's just a lot on the President's plate.
But the counter bit to that was it was so much more relaxed and a friendly meeting. Last time , it was half an hour. This time, it was basically an hour and 20 minutes. At one point I asked him something about outside. He said, "Oh yes, I go out there sometimes during the day. I'll take you afterwards." He took me into his back office and showed me where he works and he took me out for a walk. There's a golf putting green out there that I think Eisenhower put in. Then he took me over and showed me where Michelle's garden was. So it was an hour and 20 minutes. He's super-friendly.
Obama is always in a crisis, isn't he? What do you think the most important quality is in dealing with a crisis?
Good information and a calm disposition. In the end, you need to be able to rely on the facts that you've got but you need to be able to consider all of the facts and not jump to a conclusion. And like a game of chess, you actually have to be able to see three or four moves ahead.
Did you get the sense from President Obama that he is in that position?
Definitely when it comes to Iraq. He is a senator who voted against the Iraq war, has seen that essentially it hasn't worked and is very cautious. I think the media are a long way ahead of him in terms of whether there would be any kind of air strike or drone strike. Their No1 preferred option is to get a more inclusive government in Iraq and for the Iraqi people to sort it out. Whether [Prime Minister] Maliki will ever agree to that is a different issue. He has been there since 2006 and that hasn't happened. The way [the Americans] explained it to us is ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and Levant] is like quite an advanced terrorist group even in relation to al-Qaeda — better trained, better equipped, better funded. Many of the Sunnis are latching on to them, not because they support ISIL but because they are in opposition to Maliki. Those numbers are swelling in quite big numbers. They are coming over the border from Syria. In the end, if they end up with what is effectively a civil war, based on secular grounds, then the Americans can't pick sides on that. It is not that straightforward for them.
Being here in Washington at such a crucial time in the Iraq crisis, did you feel like a nuisance at any time?
No, because in reality there is a new set of challenges here. In fact, ongoing relationships matter, and while we are not really part of the situation in Iraq we are a trusted friend and are part of the Five Eyes [intelligence alliance] and we have got a very long history together.
There's a personal friendship there that I suspect makes that meeting a little bit easier than others he [Obama] might do. I don't want to overstate things but we know each other well and like a lot of meetings, if you know somebody well and you've met them before and hopefully you like them, it just makes life easier.
Obama said the US-NZ relationship was the strongest it has ever been. Is this as good as it gets?
I think so. I don't see New Zealand going back to invoking Anzus. I think New Zealanders value independent foreign policy. You can make the case [that] Australia has an independent foreign policy and has Anzus, but in New Zealand, I think they would just see it as a step away from us being in total control of the decision-making we have. In a practical sense, some people would point to a ship visit. We didn't ask for that. I don't say it would never happen, because at some point it just seems a natural thing that might happen. But I think it is one of those things that you just let evolve.
It's up to them to want to come?
Yes. It's very misunderstood. They don't have to tell us anything. The Prime Minister of the day has to sign the declaration form that says, "I'm confident through whatever means, open sourcing or whatever, that the ship that comes is neither nuclear-powered nor nuclear-armed."
Will some Prime Minister see a ship arrive on their watch?
I suspect so.
Does it matter though?
No. It's just symbolism.
It was interesting to learn Obama intervened to get the NZ Navy ship berthed at Pearl Harbour [the US Navy base, rather than at a civilian wharf].
That's the sort of symbolism he would find awkward because he would say, "That just doesn't make sense." We're great friends; we're at a Rimpac training exercise. Why would [the NZ] ship be parked up in downtown Honolulu?
Did you make any secret trips to the National Security Agency when you were here?
Um. From time to time I always try and make sure I am fully briefed on intelligence matters.
I'll take that as a yes. How were your talks with Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel before the Oval Office visit?
He went through the range of exercises we undertake together. He obviously gave us a good perspective on Iraq and on their military capability and what might work and what might not but also Afghanistan and what that environment looks like later on. He's a Republican, so his sense of where the Republicans are at — he's very much of the view the American public doesn't want a bar of another war in Iraq.
Is New Zealand as passionate about climate change as John Kerry seems to think we are?
Yes, I think so. He's really talking about what we've been doing in the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources process and about the Ross Sea.
What ambassador made a strong impression on you in New York?
The permanent rep for Rwanda; she stood and spoke in support of New Zealand and what we had done for the people of Rwanda when we were on the Security Council [in 1993-94].
Were all the David Cunliffe [and Donghua Liu] stories back home a distraction for you?
I get used to the fact that even when I'm travelling, domestic issues are always prominent. It was just nice that I wasn't the target of them as I normally am.