May 19–21 saw several hundred delegates from across the United States and New Zealand gather in Washington for the biannual U.S.-New Zealand Pacific Partnership Forum. The forum, organized by the United States–New Zealand Council, has been instrumental in helping to normalize relations between the two countries, which had cooled significantly following New Zealand’s 1985 ban on nuclear-powered or nuclear weapons-capable naval vessels visiting its ports.
New Zealand’s Labour Party came to power in 1984 pledging to make the country a nuclear-free zone. That policy found wide public backing, but presented a dilemma for New Zealand’s ally, the United States. The situation came to a head in February 1985 when a port visit request by the USS Buchanan was refused because the ship was capable of launching nuclear weapons and the United States refused to reveal whether it carried any. New Zealand officially declared itself a nuclear-free zone in 1987, and the administration of President Ronald Reagan responded by suspending the United States’ obligations to the country under the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty. Thus began a chilly period in relations between the two allies.
But times have changed for the better.
The theme of the recent U.S.-New Zealand conference was “What’s Next?” A key component of the meeting was the involvement of some 40 young people from New Zealand and the United States, including this writer, as “future partners” to partake in discussions with top government officials, business people, journalists, and consultants. The conference had an energy that suggested that key stakeholders may be ready to broaden and deepen the bilateral relationship beyond the already-strong historical bonds solidified while fighting alongside each other in World War II. U.S. ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner put it most succinctly: “The relationship is the now the best it has ever been.”
Huebner’s words should not be taken lightly. Relations began to thaw during President George W. Bush’s administration and warmed up further once Barack Obama became president in 2009. Officials in both administrations, especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former secretaries of defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, and former assistant secretaries of state Christopher Hill and Kurt Campbell, can take a great deal of credit for helping to thaw relations.
For years, many officials involved in the relationship were unable to move beyond the cryogenic freeze in which the two countries found themselves following the 1985 nuclear ship ban. That began to change after New Zealand sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001, prompting a reevaluation in Washington of its relations with Wellington. In 2005, Assistant Secretary of State Hill called the rift over the nuclear issue “a bit of a relic,” and in 2008 then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice visited Auckland.
Once Obama took office, defense ties improved markedly. Together, the 2010 Wellington and 2012 Washington Declarations laid the basis for a renewed security relationship. In September 2012, Secretary of Defense Panetta announced that New Zealand war ships would again be able to visit U.S. bases, and on May 30, the HMNZS Te Mana became the first to do so when it steamed into Guam. Meanwhile, Ambassador Huebner, as an avid user of social media, has played a major role in recent years in expanding the bilateral relationship to other stakeholders in New Zealand society, especially young people and ethnic minorities.
With this backdrop in mind, two key issues from the conference are worth highlighting: trade and security. New Zealand has long been a cheerleader for free trade and instrumental in launching the current negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. Much of the focus of the forum was on a possible timeline for completing the agreement. Minister of Trade Tim Groser was confident that a November 2013 deadline is still achievable.
A panel of six former U.S. trade representatives was not so optimistic. Their broad consensus: stay tuned for a 2014 or 2015 agreement. Nonetheless, negotiators from the United States and New Zealand are working together closely to shepherd the TPP through the last remaining hurdles. This cooperation has been a key factor in the renewal of bilateral relations in recent years.
The bilateral security relationship is now comparable to pre-1985 levels of cooperation. Speaking at the conference, former deputy assistant secretary of state Randy Schriver labeled this cooperation an alliance “in all but name.” He was the only speaker who assessed the security relationship in this way.
Other panelists noted that resuming a full alliance would not necessarily be in the interests of either the United States or New Zealand. They argued that
New Zealand finds value in its independent status in its relations with China, India, and other Indo-Pacific powers.
So where should the United States take the relationship from here?
The broadening and deepening of the partnership that has been under way for the better part of a decade needs to continue. As the United States continues to face a shrinking defense budget, it can be expected to ask more of partners such as New Zealand. The notion of “forward partnering” is likely to be a strategic framework that the United States will use to effectively and efficiently maintain its rebalance toward Asia.
New Zealand will not give up its antinuclear stance for the sake of an alliance with the United States. Even trying to somehow reestablish full alliance status without addressing the nuclear issue would spark domestic opposition in New Zealand, where the country’s independent foreign policy is widely endorsed. But the two countries are still exploring new avenues for cooperation.
As the last Kiwi troops withdraw from Afghanistan, New Zealand is looking for opportunities to cooperate with the United States in peacekeeping activities, perhaps through the United Nations. Wellington is working with Washington to deepen U.S. engagement in the South Pacific diplomatically and through development assistance projects. The United States, meanwhile, is looking for New Zealand to become more active in Asian security by cooperating in areas like cybersecurity and perhaps by supporting reforms in Myanmar.
The last remaining major hurdle for the two countries is to find a way for a U.S. naval or Coast Guard vessel to visit New Zealand. Prime Minister John Key said in 2012 that New Zealand would welcome a visit from a U.S. Coast Guard ship. With the Te Mana on its way to Guam, Foreign Minister Murray McCully said on May 26 that a reciprocal visit from the U.S. Coast Guard is “entirely in their [the United States’] hands.” Surely, the two countries’ diplomats can find a way to achieve this feat without violating sensitivities on either side of the Pacific.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)
Jack Georgieff is the Thawley Scholar at the Lowy Institute and a visiting fellow with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.