Letter to the International Affairs Review 2016

The March/April 2016 Review includes Ken Ross’s paper about ANZUS and NZ/US relations. This has plenty of interesting observations but it is unclear that his eclectic selection of events and players supports his broad conclusions.

One of these is the view that since 1965 Wellington has seldom had a “comfortable relationship” with Washington and that from then, with the exception of the Bolger years, the relationship has been “either strained ...or essentially non-existent.”

We can all have our potted histories of this. At the beginning of the period Lyndon Johnson was President and Keith Holyoake Prime Minister and the record suggests that they and the rest of the NZ/US establishment had a very warm relationship. Johnson made a rare and hugely popular visit to New Zealand in 1966 and Holyoake responded to a reciprocal invitation visiting Washington DC in 1968. There was an intimate ANZUS Council meeting in Washington in 1968 and on a more continuous basis extremely close cooperation over the Vietnam War. The US for a while wished that NZ would increase its commitment to that war, but it then accepted that what was there was all there was going to be, and no noticeable dent was made in the relationship over that. Johnson frequently referred to his “seven fighting allies” of which we were one and the Economist wrote an article around 1968 complaining that New Zealand and Australia exercised more influence in Washington than Britain.

In the 1970s the positive and close relationship remained for all practical purposes. Not even Muldoon’s peanut farmer comments early in Carter’s presidency serious dented this. It was overcome in about six months with Carter inviting Muldoon to the White House for exceptionally cordial meetings. That same year 1977 New Zealand hosted a highly successful ANZUS Council meeting which in part reflected the warmth of the relationship between Foreign Minister Talboys and Under-secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Ross’s covers Lange and the nuclear ships ban but puzzlingly attributes the “non-existent” years to Shipley and Key. But Clinton invited Shipley to Washington and the stories are legion about how he kept his appointment with her even though it coincided with a crucial day in his impeachment over the Lewinsky affair. He came to New Zealand for the APEC summit in Shipley’s time. Key’s and New Zealand’s record with Obama, his first Secretary of State and others, during which time military ship visits resumed, would seem even apart from golf to deserve a more positive descriptor.

The article notes that in the Brown and Angus book, Asia and the Pacific in the 1970s, published in 1971 the authors suggest “the intellectual lights for ANZUS were already dimming in New Zealand”. There was no doubt in the lead up to this time a growing ambivalence over the Vietnam War and it is a gap that the article contains no reference at all to the effects of Vietnam on ANZUS or NZ/US relations in this period.

Another theme is that while Australia saw the Pentagon as the focus of its relationship with the US, our “smartest primary account...when we get our act together, has been the White House, most particularly the National Security Council.” Perhaps, at times, but the observation overlooks the continuing significance of the State Department in the relationship, and the warm links between successive New Zealand Ministers and Secretaries of Foreign Affairs and influential Secretaries of State such as Cyrus Vance, Condoleezza Rice and others.

Neil Plimmer

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