There are only a few more minutes left until midnight here, so I’ll jump right back into my Top Ten countdown before 2011 expires. Picking up where I stopped yesterday …

5. Pacific Partnership 2011

Inspired in part by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Pacific Partnership is an annual humanitarian mission led by the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, intended to ensure that the United States and its friends and allies are better coordinated to respond to future disasters in the Pacific region.

At numerous stops along its route, Pacific Partnership trains local forces in disaster relief, works with local and international relief organizations on emergency response plans, and provides medical care and construction aid to local communities. The past five missions have served more than 300,000 patients in 13 countries and engaged in 130 engineering projects.

Aboard USS CLEVELAND (LPD 7) (May 9, 2011) HMNZS Canterbury is followed by Landing Craft Utility (LCU) 1665, Landing Craft Heavy (LCH) L133 HMAS Betano, and Landing Craft Heavy (LCH) L126 HMAS Balikpapan out of the Segond Channel during Pacific Partnership 2011.

HMNZS Canterbury and support craft, photographed from USS Cleveland.

In May, Royal New Zealand Navy ship HMNZS Canterbury met USS Cleveland in Tonga and then participated in a month of Pacific Partnership humanitarian activities in Vanuatu. That was the first time in more than 25 years that American and Kiwi naval ships operated together. US Commodore Jesse Wilson actually transferred his command from USS Cleveland to HMNZS Canterbury for the month, marking the first time in history that an American naval exercise was led from the bridge of a Kiwi ship.

Although largely overlooked in the press, Pacific Partnership 2011 was dramatic evidence of both the accelerating positive momentum in the US-NZ bilateral relationship and the benefits that such collaboration can produce for our mutual neighbors in the Pacific region. There was perhaps no better example this past year of the Wellington Declaration in action.

4. Embassy Restructuring

Perhaps the most impactful effort by our team in 2011 was the restructuring of the way in which our Embassies in New Zealand and Samoa do business. We reorganized staff positions, shut down legacy programs that did not fit current needs and circumstances, created new portfolios, launched new projects, articulated a more focused and active strategy, and set higher standards for performance and outcomes.

All of that can be disconcerting, particularly after years of relatively stable activity. And, of course, change of any sort can be difficult to engineer within government entities. I have been greatly impressed, though, with the flexible and enthusiastic manner in which most of the team in Wellington, Auckland, and Apia have embraced the more kinetic, purpose-built, results-oriented approach to our mission.

Click through for image source.

Without that heavy internal lifting, we could not have pursued very much of the external engagement that you’ve seen from us this past year. Without the re-engineering, several of the other items on the Top Ten list simply would not have been conceived, attempted, or even considered possible. A few of the remaining items would have been reactive rather than active, thus significantly reducing their impact.

Because of the tremendous long-term value of retooling operations and aligning resources and strategy with current realities, this is the project to which I devoted the bulk of my own time in 2011. It was certainly time well spent … an investment that will continue to pay dividends for decades. In fact, but for the three special events discussed below, our Mission restructuring would have hit the top spot on this list.

3. Rugby World Cup

It’s difficult to talk briefly about this one. The riotous pageant known as the Rugby World Cup (RWC) consumed the country for more than a month, not counting the year of intense preparations before the opening match. Our Mission’s RWC program had hundreds of moving parts, including very special participation by headliners such as the USA Eagles and the US Marine Corps Forces Pacific Band.

The tournament lands in the upper reaches of my Top Ten list because it presented an unprecedented opportunity –enthusiastically and successfully converted by my colleagues — to reinvigorate old relationships, build new ones, demonstrate shared values and interests, and celebrate our two countries’ love of sport. We hosted well over 60 separate events which drew approximately 50,000 people, including a series of American tailgate parties and pep rallies before the USA Eagles’ pool matches.

Richmond for the Street Parade and Block Party to celebrate the USA Eagles arrival - RWC 2011.

Kiwi friends at the USA Street Parade in Richmond.

We launched a rugby blog. We held online contests. We took the Marine Corps Band on a concert tour of Taranaki, Kapiti, and Wellington. We organized school tours and performances by world percussionist Tom Teasley and Hawaiian dancers from the Polynesian Cultural Center in Honolulu. And we arranged training sessions with the Eagles for special friends like the Ōtaki rippa Eagles.

We also participated actively in dozens of events sponsored by organizations and communities outside the Embassy … the Eagles’ welcome ceremony in Wanganui, parades in New Plymouth and Richmond, street fairs in several cities, wine tastings, local rugby tournies, and a fun-packed USA national day at Te Papa that featured cheerleaders, Country/Western line dancing, and jazz.

Amidst the many highlights, the Marines really stood out … the exuberant street parade in New Plymouth, their participation at St Andrews in a moving commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the American homeland, rock ‘n roll performances at fan zones in New Plymouth and Wellington, providing on-field entertainment at Eagles games, a dozen appearances in small towns around the country, and a powerful concert at Old St Paul’s, a site revered by Marines for the comfort and refuge it provided Marines of a previous era.

Rugby World Cup 2011.

TV One Breakfast host Tamati Coffey with Marine musicians and USA Eagles fans.

The RWC taxed the Mission to its limits, but no ball was dropped, and no opportunity was lost. We learned many valuable lessons, including the impressive things that can be accomplished with limited resources and a lot of imagination, the great store of affection for Americans among rank-and-file Kiwis, and the enthusiasm of the large number of Americans who call New Zealand home.

I wish we could do the RWC campaign all over again next year.

2. Prime Minister Key’s Trip to Washington

In July, President Obama welcomed Prime Minister Key to DC for his first official visit to the White House. Over the course of three days the PM held substantive discussions with the Washington A-list including the President, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling, and Senators John Kerry, Richard Lugar, and John McCain.

The Prime Minister and his party were accorded the special honor of staying at Blair House, the official residence for guests of the American President, where President Abraham Lincoln sought quiet refuge during the Civil War, and where the Marshall Plan was signed. The Prime Minister was greeted by a 19-cannon salute, a military band, and an honor guard of hundreds of service men and women when he visited the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at Arlington National Cemetery.

PM John Key’s visit to the White House.

Prime Minister Key with President Obama in the Oval Office.

What earns the trip a top spot on this list was not the pomp and circumstance but the substantive work accomplished. The meetings were detailed, specific, and mutually beneficial. A broad range of topics including Afghanistan, TransPacific Partnership, regional security and stability, economic development, financial markets, bilateral investment, climate change, Christchurch earthquakes, joint projects, and regional disaster preparedness was covered. All in, the meetings comprised the highest-level, most productive working visit to Washington by a New Zealand Prime Minister ever.

There was ample evidence of the affection with which Americans and American leaders regard Aotearoa. The President emphasized the strength of the US-NZ partnership and inquired in detail about the welfare of Cantabrians and the progress of Christchurch’s recovery. In introducing Prime Minister Key during a pause in Senate deliberations, Senator John Kerry made special reference to the great friendship between the two countries, noting that New Zealand is “in enormous partnership” with America, indeed ”one of the strongest and best partnerships with us on a global basis.”

1. Christchurch Earthquake Response

The top slot on the 2011 list goes of course to the February 22nd earthquake in Christchurch. It’s on the darkest of days when authentic friendship is most easily distinguished from transactional acquaintance, and when people show their true mettle. My colleagues — not only in Wellington and Auckland but in Honolulu, Washington, Sydney, and elsewhere – rose to the occasion, jumped in to assist, and demonstrated that the deep kinship between New Zealand and America is tangible and real, not rhetorical.

Christchurch Cathedral moments after the February 22nd earthquake.

As you know from my posts earlier in the year, we had a dozen Embassy staffers and approximately 100 visiting American officials, business leaders, students, and others in Christchurch for the US-NZ Partnership Forum when the quake struck. I had just left the city on a US military plane with a delegation of American Congressmen, en route to meetings in Wellington.

Within minutes of the quake we donated the Embassy’s entire disaster assistance fund of US$ 100,000 to the New Zealand Red Cross, and began the process of airlifting in 40 tons of rescue supplies and a 90-person urban search and rescue (USAR) team composed of USAID and Los Angeles County Fire Department specialists.

We later brought in the US Army Corps of Engineers to assist in evaluating damaged buildings and to advise on deconstruction options. In Washington we formed the American Friends of Christchurch to collect contributions from American citizens and companies wanting to assist in relief and recovery efforts.

Los Angeles County Fire Department USAR team in action.

Los Angeles County Fire Department USAR team in Christchurch.

Eight of my colleagues remained in the city for days after the quake. They camped on the floor of the US Antarctic Program offices at night and forayed into the ruined city by day to search for injured Americans, provide relief services to American citizens, and facilitate the arrival and deployment of our USAR team and other assistance. It was difficult, emotional, and highly stressful work — above and beyond the normal call of duty – through ongoing aftershocks, with little sleep and only the clothes on their backs.

But that’s what friends do.

Our response to the quake was not political. It was visceral and personal. We did not press the already over-stretched Kiwi authorities for help. We rolled up our sleeves and pitched in. Our USAR team did not stay in a Wellington hotel and commute down to Christchurch periodically for sightseeing and photo ops. They set up camp on the lawn in Latimer Square in the heart of Christchurch and worked in shifts around the clock for weeks. And when the time came to depart, they gifted $650,000 worth of high-tech search and rescue equipment to their Kiwi counterparts.

Because that’s what friends do.

USAR team members starting a shift.

More powerfully than anything else during 2011, the Christchurch earthquake of February 22nd demonstrated the depth of the kinship between Americans and Kiwis, the value of true friendship in challenging times, and the tenacity, courage, and skill of my Embassy and Consulate General colleagues, as well as the people of Canterbury. As often happens, a tragic occurrence taught compelling lessons and brought out the best in people.

*  *  *

That’s it for 2011. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour through the highlights, challenges, and meaningful moments of what was an extraordinarily busy twelve months at American Mission New Zealand. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, in my opinion, 2011 was among the most productive and impactful of the 173 years of formal American diplomatic engagement in Aotearoa, second perhaps only to 1942.

Let’s see what develops in 2012.

To all our friends in New Zealand and Samoa, Dr McWaine and I wish you and yours a very happy, healthy, and rewarding New Year. Kia hari te Tau Hou.

One of the highlights of a busy month has been barnstorming through Taranaki with 50 new friends from Honolulu … members of the US Marine Corps Forces Pacific Band. Having played trombone in high school, university, and professional bands myself, I know how much energy and pleasure a troupe of musicians can generate. So it seemed natural to invite the Marines to New Zealand to help support the USA Eagles in our first two games of the Rugby World Cup.

The Band arrived in New Plymouth and hit the ground marching. They met Dr McWaine and me at the cricket field the morning of September 10th, along with our AmeriCarna friends Wayne & Frances McCurdy. The Doc and I got into the back seat of Wayne’s candy-apple red 1976 Cadillac El Dorado convertible. The Band fell in behind. And we paraded through the main streets of the city.

A couple thousand folks lined the route and waved as we passed, and many followed us to the Taranaki International Village next to the Rugby World Cup FanZone. The Show Band ensemble split off from the full Band, took the stage at the Village, and raised the roof with an hour of classic rock favorites. The packed tent and the overflow crowd outside clapped, cheered, and sang along.

The next day, September 11th, was a mix of somber and joyful. The Brass Quintet played at the moving 9-11 memorial service attended by the Eagles and more than 500 others at St Andrew’s Church. That afternoon the Show Band played another rock concert at the International Village, and the Party Band ensemble performed at our tailgate party before the US/Ireland game. The full Band then reassembled to take to the rugby field to entertain the crowd before the start of the match.

For the next couple of days Dr McWaine and I traveled with the Band across Taranaki as it played concerts in Stratford, Hawera, and New Plymouth. The full Concert Band was very well received, with a program of classical music, iconic marches, and big-band era favorites. In the community center in Stratford the music had many of the 800 attendees clapping, cheering, and singing along at times. I chuckled to see the older school girls mob their favorite musicians after the concert, including drummer Matt.

The day of the USA/Russia game, September 15th, brought another packed rock concert at the International Village and an even bigger tailgate party at the TSB Showcase. The Party Band and many of our enthusiastic tailgaters spilled out into the street for an impromptu dance mob with costumed passers-by and other American fans heading to the game. The full Band again provided on-field pre-game entertainment, starting the ball rolling toward the Eagles’ impressive victory.

We then headed toward Wellington. The Brass Quintet played at the Paekakariki Town Hall, and the full Concert Band assembled to perform at Old Saint Paul’s. Permanently and proudly displaying US and 2nd Marine Division flags from World War II, Old St Paul’s had been an important site of worship for the Marines stationed in Wellington during the War. It now houses A Friend in Need, an exhibit commemorating the Marines’ long relationship with New Zealand. The concert was an emotional event, with both American and Kiwi veterans in attendance.

The Marine musicians’ time in New Zealand culminated with the Show Band rocking the Wellington Fanzone for two hours this past Saturday afternoon. The crowd numbered in the several hundreds, packed with rugby fans from South Africa and Fiji who were enthusiastically gearing up for their evening match. The Springbok fans certainly had the numbers, but the Fijians held their own in style and flair. The Band’s final song was a slamming rendition of funk/soul powerhouse Tower of Power’s What is Hip?

I think the Band — in all its iterations, whether Marching, Concert, Show, Party, or Brass Quintet — answered that musical question unambiguously. Under the direction of Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Smith, the Band  wows audiences more than 400 times each year, and knows how to entertain. From ceremonies to parades to parties, the Band is as entertaining, exuberant, and hip as it is regal.

In Old St Paul’s.

In Old St Paul’s, before warming up for the concert.

A big thanks to the Band members, our friends at Pacific Command who made the trip possible, our hosts in Taranaki, Kapiti, and Wellington, and everyone who came out to enjoy the music. The Marines pumped the level of fun, excitement, and energy way up during the first week of the Rugby World Cup. And they thoroughly enjoyed being here. I was a bit worried that we weren’t going to get all of them back on the airplane.

If you weren’t able to see the Band in person, don’t fret. We hope to bring the guys and gals back again next June for another round of concerts and parades commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Marines’ landing in Wellington to defend the Aotearoa homeland and the South Pacific during World War II. Nothing is committed yet, but we’re working hard to make the arrangements. Keep your fingers crossed.

In the meantime, click through to our photos and videos of the Band if you missed last week’s event or just want to look or listen again.

It has been an absolutely great night of rugby here in New Plymouth as our USA Eagles showed what they are made of. With a 13-6 victory over the Russians, the Eagles proved that they are in New Zealand to play. In driving rain and forceful wind, the US hit hard, stayed tough, and shut down the other side when it mattered most.

There was a party atmosphere in the stands despite the weather. The Marine Corps Forces Pacific Band performed. I thoroughly enjoyed mingling through the large numbers of American supporters, many of them in costumes … including dozens of Uncle Sams, several Miss Americas, a few Rocky Horror Picture Show Columbias, two Colonel Sanders, at least one full-on Captain America, and an inexplicable 6-foot panda with a red, white, and blue top hat.

Out on the pitch it was a hard-fought game on both sides, with lots of heart. Russia jumped out to a 0-3 lead early on a penalty kick, but the Eagles fought back to 3-3, 10-3, and 13-3, holding on to close the match at 13-6. The adjectives of the evening were wet, cold, and physical. The game was not as close as the score implies, and I know that the Eagles feel good about their tenacious, relentless performance.

Of course we eased into the appropriate mood with an exuberant pre-game tailgate party at the TSB Showplace. The Marine Corps Show Band blew the roof off as more than 200 guests (including the Eagles’ families) enjoyed brew, burgers, hotdogs, cole slaw, tater salad, freedom fries, and apple pie a la mode. I delivered a very diplomatic speech emphasizing civility, and then the party spilled out onto the street in a most unruly fashion as we were joined by other revelers in a variety of costumes including, oddly, two Teletubbies and a guy dressed like Stalin.

The evening was a marvelous way to cap a great week in Taranaki. The Eagles, Marines, my Embassy colleagues, and I have barnstormed through the region … with a couple dozen school visits, concerts, television and radio interviews, and other public appearances. Plus a little sightseeing, a little culture, and lots of great food.

With the streets decked out in red, white, and blue, the good people of New Plymouth and surrounding towns have welcomed us warmly and enthusiastically. And they have made quite a big impression.

I regret that I can’t stay the weekend to explore the region further. The Marines will be playing a concert at Old St Paul’s on Friday evening, and I need to hit the road to get back to Wellington in time. I know, though, that Dr McWaine and I will be coming back up to Taranaki soon, and frequently. We love it up here.

We’ve been barnstorming Taranaki the past few days with the Eagles, the Marine Corps Pacific Forces Band, my colleagues from the Embassy, and a robust contingent of American expats and Kiwi friends. If you’ve been watching TV or reading the papers, you’ve probably seen pictures of our parade through New Plymouth, various school visits, the rock ‘n roll unit of the Band playing at the International Showcase, and outdoor concerts.

We planned as well to introduce New Plymouth to the venerable American cultural touchstone known as the tailgate party. Staged from the backs of our cars and pick-up trucks in the parking lots of sports stadiums, tailgate parties are exuberant communal social events before the start of sports matches. Sometimes the parties are so good that people don’t even go into the game.

Click to view video

Because the weather was a bit dodgy before the USA/Ireland match, we moved the party indoors to the TSB Showplace. We served piles of hamburgers, hotdogs, coleslaw, freedom fries, potato salad, homemade apple pie with ice cream, and other American delicacies. Beer and wine flowed freely (but responsibly). And the party unit of the Marine Band entertained us with dixieland and rock ‘n roll selections.

When the weather cleared a bit we moved out onto the balcony of the theater so that we could better serenade our friends from Ireland, who were demurely sipping non-alcoholic cordials and quietly discussing Proust under a tent a half block away. Our singing, trumpeting, and dancing started to draw a fun crowd on the street below, including an unexpected brigade of Uncle Sams, before we had to pack things up to dash to the stadium for the game, where the Marines also performed.

The first graphic above clicks through to a short snippet from the balcony phase of the tailgate party. The second graphic is a slideshow of photos from the event. In both cases, just a taste from early in the proceedings.

We’ll be returning to the TSB Showcase on Thursday before the USA/Russia game … with more American food, drink, music, and camaraderie. If you’re in the CBD, listen for music, laughing, and cheering in the air. Go Eagles.