Thursday, July 31, 2008

So we are (A?)llies now as well as friends?

The Herald

At her press conference in Auckland Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used the a-word and said that if issues remained in the relationship between the US and NZ then we should address them. Well I have a few issues, and quite a few questions.

Off the top of my head the issues are

1/ when do we get a free trade agreement?

2/ when will military exercises between the two countries stop requiring a presidential waiver?

3/ what is the real state of intelligence co-operation between the two countries and how can it be improved?

4/ if nuclear disarmament really is about to become a more serious concern of the US and of the Rudd government in Australia then surely we have a lot of credibility on the issue and could make ourselves useful? Perhaps in return for consideration on 1-3? (Maybe something like this has already gone on with respect to North Korea, certainly North Korean diplomacy and our activities in Afghanistan are singled out in Rice's speech.)

5/ Most importantly, what kind of relationship does New Zealand want with the US in the 21st century and what kinds of military and security relationships with the US, Australia and others do we want or need? Does our anti-nuclear policy really constitute a barrier to this and if so are there modifications that we could make that would be palatable to the New Zealand public? I am an enormous emotional supporter of the nuclear free policy. However I am not sure that I have ever given it much adult consideration. At this point it would be a good idea to take a sceptical look at both the policy and our "alliance" with the US.

If we are now allies, and given our not totally insignificant contributions in recent years in East Timor, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf then 2 and 3 at least should surely be addressed by any Secretary of State willing to use the term "ally" even with a small a.

On the other hand if we are now allies, we are surely not the kind of ally that would take part in military action against Iran or China if relations between the US and these countries were to deteriorate further? It would be good to better understand National's vision of this new "alliance". (Not that the Labour's is not vague, more on that later.)

As to my questions. It's more than 20 years since Lange gave his Yale speech and nearly a quarter of a century since New Zealand elected a government bent on banning visits by nuclear-armed ships. We should be able to come to a considered assessment of the Nuclear Free policy and legislation, its long term effects and the future of our relationship with the US and with Australia.

But many aspects of the later history seem very perplexing to me.

(Some of these questions derive from the final chapter of Malcom Templeton's "Standing Upright Here" which seems to be where you go to learn about these issues.)

1/ The nuclear free policy and associated stand-off with the US is a legacy of the Cold War but most of its life has been after the end of that conflict. Why has the cold spell in the relationship lasted so long? There seems to be a large element of stubbornness on both sides in this. In 1991 the G. H. W. Bush administration moved to repatriate its nuclear artillery shells and short range ballistic missiles. This made Neither Confirm Nor Deny as a practical matter something of an anachronism. Naval ship visits from the United Kingdom resumed soon after this but not from the US. The current warming seems to date from the second G. W. Bush term in which the undersecretary of state responsible for our part of the world was for the first time not an active diplomat in the mid-eighties. All this suggests that emotional factors have played a role.

2/ The Bolger National government made a great song and dance about changing the policy, at least to the extent of amending the legislation to allow visits by nuclear powered ships. Whatever the merits of the matter, this would surely have softened US attitudes and could have led to a normalisation of relations between the two countries soon after the end of the Cold War. Having sought expert advice on the safety of nuclear powered ships they decided against taking any action. Why?

3/ When Clark finally visited Washington in this term news reports claimed that one precipating factor was that Key had clearly stated that National would not alter the policy. It was argued that this element of definite bipartisan committment contributed to convincing US policy makers that a continued punishment in terms of really high level contacts was counter-productive. This is very perplexing since National was in government for NINE YEARS and did absolutely nothing about the nuclear free policy. Going by the polls, the NZ public has been absolutely committed to being nuclear free for 25 years or so and its hard to imagine any National government even a Brash government changing the legislation in the medium term. Did the US Embassy fail over such a long period to communicate this to Washington? Did private assurances from sections of National manage to maintain hopes in Washington for all the years until Key rode in on his white horse? Did this political development really have anything to do with the warming relationship?

4/ This leaves us still wondering at the real reasons for the current warmth. I was amazed that Clark in radio interviews tied the small-a alliance to the "security situation" after 9/11. Does she really believe, like Rumsfeld and Cheney, that 9/11 changed everything? With the Iraq conflict the first G. W. Bush term certainly does not look like a high point in the relationship. And why emphasize security issues at all? Clark is presumably one of those in Labour who wanted not just an end to visits by nuclear armed ships but also a definite break in the military alliance. Surely it is precisely the absence of this alliance relationship that made it easier for us to stay out of the initial US invasion of Iraq (if not subsequent UN-sanctioned activities in Iraq or indeed patrols in the Persian Gulf at the time of the invasion.) Surely most New Zealanders support this decision and Clark could regard it as a major achievement and some kind of vindication of her actions in the 80s that we did not take part in this ill-advised and damaging US action? Surely she might see the status of "friends but not allies" as providing insurance against further US misteps or further erosion of US standing? (To be clear I definitely do not want to see such further erosion myself and neither I imagine does Clark.)

Given the ambiguities of Clark's attitudes, I'll close with this, one of my favorite photos of Clark as Prime Minister on account of its many ironies.

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