From ostracism in 1986 to a US Navy ship visit on 17 November 2016, New Zealand’s leaders have managed a sometimes troubled relationship with Washington skilfully. When I published my book New Zealand United States Relations in 2000, diplomatic, defence and intelligence relations were curtailed and several trade disputes loomed. Sixteen years later, the two countries are “very, very, very close friends”, as expressed by then Secretary of State Colin Powell. Subsequently two other Secretaries of State, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, and Vice-President Joe Biden, have made visits to Wellington and President Obama has welcomed Prime Minister John Key in the White House. New Zealand has not compromised its no-nuclear-ship-visit policy, and there is no prospect of re-joining the ANZUS alliance, so why has the relationship warmed?
I believe the answer lies in pragmatic diplomacy, pursuit of mutual interests and shifting geo-politics, all of which I have detailed in the 2nd edition of New Zealand United States Relations, which has just been published by the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs. Despite some public scepticism of United States nuclear policies, the Clark and Key governments have independently assessed New Zealand’s national interests and concluded that a good working relationship with Washington is beneficial, on balance. This was an easy decision to make, given that the US was not only one of New Zealand’s best trade partners and sources of investment and tourism, but also a collaborator in counter-terrorism and peace support operations in East Timor, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf. The US ban on bilateral military contacts did not extend to international deployments, or after 1990 to high-level visits.
The Five Eyes network intelligence sharing was slightly curtailed but never completely stopped, as the US made available to the SIS and GCSB intelligence to support common international initiatives such as counter- terrorism and counter-crime policies. Likewise acquisitions and logistics were never interrupted by Washington.
Also, the Obama Administration has included New Zealand as a valued partner in its “rebalance to Asia” initiatives. If it is US policy to maintain a presence in the Western Pacific in the face of the rising influence of China, then it is in the US interest to support those governments at China’s periphery. The main players include Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia. But the “reserves” include New Zealand, a useful staging venue as it was in 1942, and another flag alongside the Stars and Stripes.
New Zealand has been useful to the United States in the United Nations and in trade liberalisation initiatives, perhaps because of this the US actively backed New Zealand’s election to the Security Council. Further, New Zealand, along with Australia, helped stabilise the Pacific islands, as in the RAMSI, Bougainville, and Nukualofa peace-keeping deployments, collaboration on sanctioning Fiji’s military junta, and aerial and naval surveillance to deter smugglers and poachers.
The US Navy ship visit on 17 November, the first in 33 years, to commemorate the Royal New Zealand Navy’s 75th Anniversary, symbolises this convergence of interests.
Will a Trump presidency alter these policy fundamentals? This is not likely inasmuch as New Zealand is not in Trump’s radical policy cross-hairs. The Trump Administration is likely to be preoccupied with NATO vis-à-vis Russia, the Iraq-Syria theatre, China, and Mexico. State and Pentagon professionals will manage relations with non-controversial governments along familiar lines. New Zealand is not threatening to Trump’s concerns as voiced in his electoral campaign either militarily or economically or socially (very few illegal immigrants from here), and those 59 million Americans who voted for Trump probably have a vaguely favourable impression of New Zealand, if they have any awareness at all.
Some analysts speculate that the US will demand more military cooperation, for example in supporting US “freedom of navigation” patrols, which would risk China’s wrath. The Key-McCully team have been resolute in denying the need to choose, confident that New Zealand can remain friendly with both Washington and Beijing. For example, New Zealand has joined the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership talks but Washington, which has joined neither, has not complained, and Secretary of State John Kerry has just visited to support NZ-US cooperation in Antarctic management. Yes, a Trump Administration could be more demanding, but we must wait to see what form those demands take before altering policies that have worked well so far.
In sum, I believe that NZ-US relations are about as good as any bilateral relationship of sovereign states with distinct interests can be. For a Trump Administration to disturb this relationship would be as perverse and counter-productive for the United States as for New Zealand. I anticipate that New Zealand’s leaders and officials will be alert to any threats to the relationship that may emanate from new leaders in the White House, State Department, Pentagon, or office of the US Trade Representative and move to moderate them as skilfully in future as they have done in the past.
Stephen Hoadley, Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.