USS Howard arrives in wellington: Credit NZH

Duty Call or Booty Call?

United States – New Zealand Relations

The United States Marine Corps Memorial stands proudly on the waterfront of New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, close to where the first troops came ashore in 1942. A plaque laid by the Second Marine Division Association in 1951 says “To the People of New Zealand. If you ever need a friend, you have one.”

US Marine Corps Memorial - If You ever need a friend you have one
US Marine Corps Memorial – “If you ever need a friend you have one.”

Churchill and Roosevelt chose, however, at the three Washington conferences of WWII, to pursue victory in Europe, defend India and assist Russia and China in WWII rather than defend Australia and New Zealand. Australia withdrew its troops from the Middle East because of this and the positioning of United States troops in New Zealand was, in part, to avoid it doing likewise in the face of the Japanese threat. I have no doubt the sentiments on the Marine Corps memorial were heartfelt. But how has that statement stood the test of time?

This seems a good time to ask that question. On 26 November, the United States Navy guided missile destroyer, USS Howard, arrived for a port visit in Wellington, New Zealand. The last visit of a United States warship to New Zealand was five years prior and this is the first to the nation’s capital in nearly four decades. Five days later, new U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, Tom Udall, presented his credentials. But what has actually changed?

The purpose of this article is to examine the inconsistent relationship between the United States and New Zealand as well as options for resolving the situation.

Memories Forged in War

At any one time from June 1942 to mid-1944 there were between 15,000 and 45,000 American personnel in New Zealand. Most of them came to the country either on the way to the Pacific theatre or immediately after experiencing its horrors. In total, about 400,000 United States personnel were stationed in New Zealand during WWII. Leon Uris wrote the novel ‘Battle Cry’ and Hollywood made ‘Until they Sail’ in 1957 with Paul Newman as the heart-throb based on the story of four Kiwi sisters who fall in love with four U.S. soldiers.

The ‘American Invasion’ introduced New Zealand to new social norms, food, music and sports. One of those sports provides a useful curtain raiser for the situation New Zealand currently finds itself in with the recent announcement of the trilateral security partnership between Australia, United Kingdom and United States (AUKUS). Reliant on security from the west and economic prosperity from the east, New Zealand is in the classic baseball rundown or ‘pickle’.  Caught between two bases, the ball can move faster than the runner no matter which way they go.  The only hope for the runner is that one of the fielders fumbles the ball. Hope is not a strategy.

From Ally to Outcast

At the service personnel level, the relationship is now as close as it has ever been with ‘Kiwi’ sailors, soldiers and airmen operating effectively with United States forces all over the world. But it hasn’t always been that way. I’ve recently written about New Zealand’s transition from post-colonial alignment with Great Britain to the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) collective security treaty in 1951. For the first time, New Zealand went to war without Britain when it joined the United States military action in Vietnam 1964-72. From this point on, New Zealand service personnel were increasingly dressed and equipped like Americans.

All this came to a grinding halt when the USS Buchanan was denied permission for a port visit in New Zealand. Elected in July 1984, David Lange’s Labour government had signalled its intention to make New Zealand a nuclear-free country. This wasn’t specifically an anti-American policy move. The level of public support for the nuclear-free legislation was heavily influenced by France’s unpopular Pacific nuclear testing programme that had been taking place at their territories in Mururoa and Fangataufa Atoll since 1966. The Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior was one of many that conducted protest voyages to the area.  In what was arguably the first act of terrorism committed in New Zealand, French DGSE agents bombed the Rainbow Warrior on 10 July 1985 while it was in the port of Auckland, sinking it and killing one crew member.

The United States tested the New Zealand government’s resolve by requesting a port visit but, in keeping with policy, would neither confirm nor deny that the ship had nuclear weapons aboard. The New Zealand government’s history site records the fallout as follows:

“On 4 February 1985 the Government said no. Within days Washington severed its visible intelligence and military ties with New Zealand and downgraded political and diplomatic exchanges. US Secretary of State George Schultz confirmed that the United States would no longer maintain its security guarantee to New Zealand, although the structure of the ANZUS treaty remained in place.”

The breakdown of the formal alliance between New Zealand and the United States was a surprise to many. In a Fulbright lecture delivered at Georgetown University on 2 December 2002, historian and Labour Cabinet Minister in the 80s, Dr Michael Bassett, said:

“Many Americans and some New Zealanders still seem bemused by the rupture between us. We are two western countries that have fought along side each other in virtually every major conflict since 1914. We have always enjoyed close ties. Americans with whom I have discussed the nuclear dispute in the 1980s share a feeling that somewhere there is another factor – a missing piece of the jigsaw, if you like – to explain the break. I want to suggest that there is another factor. What hasn’t been answered satisfactorily to date is why David Lange, given the commitments he made to George Shultz in 1984, capitulated a few months later to those who wanted all “nuclear-capable” ships excluded from New Zealand. The answer, I suggest, is inextricably linked to a political struggle within the Labour Party at that time.”

Friends with few benefits

Relations warmed a little under the Clinton administration as neither he nor New Zealand’s leadership (Bolger then Shipley) had personal connections to the nuclear baggage. However, this was strained again when incoming Labour Prime Minister, Helen Clark, cancelled a planned lease/purchase for 28 F16 fighters from the United States in March 2000 and disestablished the Royal New Zealand Air Force air combat wing.

The events of 11 September 2001 changed the foreign policy trajectory of both countries. George W Bush declared “You are either with us or against us in the war on terror.” New Zealand provided Special Air Service troops immediately and followed with a provincial reconstruction team in 2003. New Zealand finally left Afghanistan in May 2021 after 20 years in theatre.

Prime Minister Clark visited the White House in 2002. The late Colin Powell said to media afterward:

The two countries had agreed to disagree on nuclear issues, while focusing on common interests. But there is a disagreement that continues”. Pressed about whether the two countries could be considered allies, he said, “no, but we are very, very, very, close friends”.

The relationship was further strained when Clark’s government declined to join the United States-led invasion of Iraq. It subsequently provided engineers and staff for post-war reconstruction in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolutions. Any talk of a free trade deal for New Zealand went silent but staunch supporters of the United States-led invasion, such as Australia and Singapore, did gain free trade agreements with the United States.

Friends with some benefits

It is perhaps not coincidental that New Zealand was re-admitted to full participation in the UKUSA (Five Eyes) intelligence sharing arrangement within 12 months of signing a free trade agreement with China in 2008. Several significant announcements followed. The Wellington Declaration on a New Strategic Partnership Between New Zealand and the United States (4 Nov 2010) and the Washington Declaration on Defense Cooperation (19 June 2012) have seen defence ties largely restored but there is still no formal alliance.

The Obama administration announced its ‘Pivot to the Asia-Pacific Region’ on 1 Nov 2011. The policy gained speed but spluttered out and then went cold under Trump. In my opinion, the Trump Presidency probably set the general New Zealand population’s opinion of America and American foreign policy back 10 years. Now Biden is trying to warm things up again but many are wary of a 2024 or 2028 American suitor.  And then came AUKUS.

What Use is New Zealand?

Putting aside emotive narratives, how would a strategist see New Zealand’s usefulness in terms of geo-politics today? It is a cluster of approximately 600 islands in the south west Pacific Ocean with its capital at 41o South and 174o East between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle. Its 5 million people are sparsely spread across the two main islands – except for concentrations in the northern city of Auckland – and there is a diaspora of around another million. The country is 4,155km (2,588 miles) south east of Australia.

New Zealand Overlaid on USA
New Zealand Overlaid on United States of America

That geography is important in several ways. First, it is a very large ‘tripwire’ and forward operational base for southern and eastern approaches to Australia, the island nations of the south west Pacific and Antarctica. It has runways and ports capable of accommodating most military platforms. The sunken valleys of Marlborough Sounds (over 20% of the total coastline) and fiords of the eponymously-named region further south provide plenty of room to shelter large naval forces. Marlborough Sounds were fortified with heavy gun batteries in WWII to protect the United States fleet if it was forced to withdraw from advancing Japanese forces into the Sounds.

Marlborough Sounds gun emplacements WWII
Gun Arcs protecting a proposed United States Navy Anchorage (1940s) in Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

While precision-guided munitions may have negated some of the terrain’s inherent protection, what has not changed is New Zealand’s proximity to Antarctica. Since 1955, Christchurch airport has been the world’s leading gateway to Antarctica with over 100 direct flights a year carrying 5,500 personnel and 1,400 tonnes of cargo. Up to 2 U.S. C-17s and 6 LC-130s participate in Operation Deep Freeze annually, supplying New Zealand’s science effort at Scott Base and the United States McMurdo Station. United States service personnel are based in Christchurch throughout the summer season. From a diplomatic ‘lawfare’ perspective, New Zealand is a claimant state in Antarctica and administers the Ross Dependency. Many countries, including enemies of the United States, are posturing for resource exploitation and militarisation of the continent.

New Zealand is a major food producer and supplied fresh produce to directly support the United States war effort in the Pacific theatre in WWII. Though this is not a unique offering in the world, it is noteworthy that the country produces enough food for 40 million people (8 times its population). China takes a third of New Zealand’s dairy exports (worth $5.5B in 2020). The United States was the biggest dairy export market up until 15 years ago and now doesn’t even feature in the top ten countries. China and USA compete at the top of the beef exports table, each spending about $1.3B on New Zealand beef. China spends more than twice as much as USA and United Kingdom combined on New Zealand sheep meat. The pattern is replicated across most food and beverage categories except wine where the United States is the number one export market. The bottom line is that since New Zealand and China signed a free trade agreement in 2008, China has gone from a relatively insignificant market to the country’s major trading partner.

The broader Realm of New Zealand means the country is in a position to influence the votes of Niue, Cook Islands and Tokelau in international forums.

The country has a space programme. RocketLab (now publicly listed in the United States – NASD:RKLB), is the best known of the companies and has launched 107 satellites with its reusable rocket technology. There are several other organisations in the sector as well as many more in the uncrewed vehicle and vessel field. New Zealand enjoys relatively quiet airspace for space, near-space and sub-space launches as well as testing.

RocketLab Launch Complex 1 Mahia New Zealand
RocketLab Launch Complex 1, Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand

Familial links are by far the strongest bonds in the island nations of the south west Pacific. Demographically, New Zealand is strongly ‘related and connected’ by bloodlines and culture to these islands. Perhaps more by accident than intent, it has positioned itself as the largest south west pacific island nation. This is an important juxtaposition with Australia seeing itself as a regional superpower. New Zealand’s ability to negate unwelcome foreign influence in south west Pacific nations is significant.

Some politicians and officials make much of New Zealand’s voice at the United Nations and similar forums. Jingoistic mantras like ‘punching above our weight’ and ‘having a strong independent foreign policy’ go largely unchallenged. The harsh reality is that, to major nations, New Zealand’s ‘flag on the table’ can be replaced by any one of a number of small states who can easily be bought for the price of a new air or sea port. It is impossible to have an independent foreign policy without the means to defend yourself and, although its personnel are well trained and regarded, New Zealand’s defence force lack the mass, lethality and sustainability to fight in even a medium intensity conflict for more than a few days without significant assistance.

‘Booty Call’ Foreign Policy

AUKUS is awkward but not abnormal. The United States makes foreign policy based on its own vast interests and, as recent research shows, treaty allies matter for United States foreign policy experts – but they are not indispensable. At the political level, New Zealand has been an unreliable and sometimes unpredictable friend despite excellent efforts within diplomatic, trade and military circles such as the development of regional trade agreements and humanitarian assistance. It has no national security strategy on which to base decisions relating to partners, friends and allies. New Zealand’s exclusion from AUKUS is unsurprising given that the ‘no nukes’ situation would have meant it could not function as a full member of an agreement based on nuclear-capable partners. But the three AUKUS member countries have not been the most reliable partners for New Zealand either.

If the United States is serious about strengthening its influence in the Indo-Pacific, there are several things it could do right now. It could harness New Zealand’s small but impressive technology sector to accelerate the artificial intelligence, quantum and autonomous technology developments of AUKUS. A simple step in reducing China’s influence in the region is to be more economically influential. It could re-engage with CPTPP and establish a free trade agreement with New Zealand as first steps.

Ultimately, if the United States and New Zealand wish to be ‘in the same tent’ in the Indo-Pacific, they must find a way to be formal allies again. This requires courage on the part of New Zealand politicians to broach the subject of nuclear propulsion versus nuclear weapons. Discussions of climate change are a perfect time to discuss this. As a trading nation in the context of peak oil and global warming; economically viable, nuclear-propelled super cargo ships are a real possibility. Any rapprochement also requires the United States to drop the ‘big stick’ and resume full responsibilities under ANZUS.

Alternative Futures

Big problems deserve equally big thinking. I have previously discussed options for New Zealand’s national security posture, including armed non-alignment and armed neutrality. Dr Reuben Steff has also examined options including tight five eyes alignment, asymmetric hedging (the current situation) and armed neutrality. Many of these options carry unintended consequences for the United States such as the perception in some quarters that China is succeeding in splitting up traditional partners.

The political nature of New Zealand society is also changing. The average citizen’s tendency for fairness and egalitarianism often comes out with a democratic socialist flavour in policy making. This is particularly relevant given the potential for the Green Party to hold the balance of power after the 2023 general election. Their manifesto explicitly states that “New Zealand should never fight in any coalition with Australia, UK or US and it should withdraw from ANZUS, the Five Power Defence Arrangement and Five Eyes.”

Conclusion

Despite a long history of shared challenges, New Zealand and the United States have not been allies for 36 years. New Zealand has no formal national security strategy on which to base decisions regarding United States requests for military participation. As a consequence, the government of the day has decided on a case-by-case basis with variable outcomes for both countries. The context for these choices is now more complex with economic dependency on China and potentially unpredictable political combinations such as the Green Party holding the balance of power in 2023. Previously unthinkable alternative futures for New Zealand such as non-alignment and neutrality are now subjects being discussed. The stability of the Indo-Pacific region and Antarctica is too important to be left to a booty call.

New Zealand and the United States have a long and proud history of fighting alongside, and with, each other. Due to wartime censorship, nothing was reported at the time about ‘The Battle of Manners Street’ on 3 April 1943 in which over 1,000 American and Kiwi servicemen and civilians fought each other in a drunken brawl in the streets of Wellington. Those same U.S. servicemen left the “if you ever need a friend” plaque after, and in spite of that fight. Both countries need to understand and accommodate some areas, but there’s hope for the future.

A quote from the movie ‘Until They Sail’ mentioned in the introduction seems apt to close:

Barbara Leslie Forbes: If my father could read the history of his daughters…

Capt. Jack Harding: He’d understand.

Barbara Leslie Forbes: As they say, to understand is to forgive. Or is it, to understand is not to forgive? I can never remember.

Until They Sail-1957
Until They Sail-1957

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Coming soon – a Kiwi crime thriller involving gangs, drugs and some not so straight cops!

A Poke in the Fifth Eye by Simon Roberts. Book Cover. Available on Amazon Kindle
A Poke in the Fifth Eye by Simon Roberts. Book Cover. Available on Amazon Kindle