In Memoriam: Ambassador Denis McLean

By Zachary Abuza, Professor of National Security Strategy, National War College, National Defense University, and Professor of Political Science & International Relations, Simmons College

A dear friend of US-New Zealand relations, Ambassador Denis McLean, CMG, passed away at his home in Wellington, New Zealand, on 30 March 2011.  The cause of death was cardiac arrest.

Educated in New Zealand and the United Kingdom, including a prestigious Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, Denis rose through New Zealand’s foreign policy establishment, culminating in his appointment as Secretary of Defense from 1979.  In the Westminster political system, the secretary is the senior-most bureaucratic position in a ministry.   He resigned in 1988 in a dispute with the government’s establishment of a nuclear free zone in 1987.  This effectively banned U.S. naval vessels from New Zealand, either because they were nuclear powered or armed with nuclear weapons.  Denis was a stalwart supporter of the close defense, intelligence and political relationship that New Zealand had with the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

In 1991 he was appointed Ambassador to the United States in an attempt to restore ties with Washington. While the nuclear posture remained in place, a policy that he disagreed with, he served his country with distinction.  He is remembered in Washington as a man who determinedly mended relations and maintained otherwise close intelligence, political and economic ties, in what could otherwise have been a free-fall in diplomatic relations.

Upon retirement from government service in 1995, he took an appointment at Simmons College, Boston, where he served as the Joan and James Warburg Chair of International Relations, where I was honored to be his colleague.  He was a passionate teacher who brought a wealth of diplomatic and governmental experience and a keen analytical eye of international affairs.  He offered a course on what was always something near and dear to his heart, “Small States in International Relations.” It was his academic passion: how small states could leverage greater influence, through diplomacy, international law, niche operations and charm.

Denis may be better known for his key role in patching up bilateral relations, but he holds a special place in the hearts of oenophiles. As Ambassador, he was the country’s salesman in chief, and was a passionate exponent of his country’s wines, then little-known in the United States; if sold, they were buried in the racks of Australian wines, a heinous crime in Kiwi eyes.  He never missed an opportunity to share the finest vintages from Otago, Hawkes Bay and Marlborough.

Denis and his charming wife Anne, a native of Argentina and one of the finest ladies one could hope to meet, returned to Wellington in 1998.  After eight years in America, he was eager to return home.  While Denis was a former rugby player and an ardent fan of the All Blacks, his passion in life was walking.  Not around the corner, mind you, but long walks through the Cotswalds or the mountains of New Zealand’s South Island.  I had the pleasure of seeing Denis in Wellington in 2007, when I had been invited to give a series of talks.  At that point he had reached the pinnacle of his career. He was the chairman of the board of a non-profit foundation to make a walking trail across the country.  And he was determined to make the trek himself.  And as I think back on this fine diplomat, civil servant, scholar, gentleman and a friend, that is how I see him: On a walk through the rolling countryside.

Photo by Christchurch City Libraries, used under a Creative Commons license.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *