How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
New Zealand’s decision to exclude nuclear weapons from its territory, and the American response to that decision, have raised serious questions about the character and management of the ANZUS (Australia-New Zealand-United States) alliance and the security of the South Pacific.
New Zealand’s zone of direct strategic interest covers a vast area stretching from the Equator to Antarctica. It is nearly all sea. The inhabited part of this region consists mainly of small democratic island states, which control huge, potentially resource-rich, maritime economic zones. The vast distances separating countries in the region have in the past inhibited closer regional cooperation.
New Zealand’s physical isolation, however, has not produced an isolationist outlook. As a small, predominantly agricultural economy, vitally dependent upon foreign trade and susceptible to the ebb and flow in the economic fortunes of our trading partners, New Zealand has a major interest in ensuring a stable and prosperous trading environment worldwide. New Zealand has been firmly committed to the concept of collective security, advocating and enthusiastically supporting efforts to institute through the United Nations workable and effective mechanisms for collective security on a global scale. As those initial hopes and expectations for effective collective security proved illusory, New Zealand also sought to protect its security by engaging the interest of powerful allies.
Fear of Japanese resurgence after World War II led New Zealand to seek a formal security arrangement with Australia and the United States in 1951. Circumstances obviously have altered since then. Yet New Zealand’s relationship with the United States remains a critical preoccupation. The new factor in that relationship is the view of the New Zealand government that the security of New Zealand requires the exclusion from its territory of all nuclear weapons.
Over recent years, there has been growing concern in New Zealand about the intrusion of elements of the global nuclear confrontation into the South Pacific. The Labour government which came to power last July was in tune with its predecessors in wishing to encourage early and substantive progress in the nuclear arms control process. We have welcomed the recent resumption of arms control talks between the United States and the Soviet Union. New Zealand has also, under successive governments, attached particular significance to securing a comprehensive test ban treaty, which, in our view, offers the most realistic prospect for preventing the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Along with Australia, New Zealand has for some years now cosponsored annually a resolution at the U.N. General Assembly calling for such a treaty. Last year this resolution won the most support of any of the test ban resolutions approved by the General Assembly. Furthermore, to help overcome the verification obstacles which would be involved in enforcing a comprehensive test ban agreement, New Zealand has contributed actively to the work of the U.N. Ad Hoc Seismic Group, which is investigating the technical aspects of establishing an international seismological network. Finally, as an earnest of our commitment to disarmament, and to enable us to monitor more closely developments in this field, New Zealand last year gained observer status at the Geneva-based U.N. Conference on Disarmament.
New Zealanders have felt an increasing sense of frustration and concern that progress in bringing the nuclear arms race under control has been minimal overall and in recent years nonexistent. This concern has been heightened by the growing realization that, despite its physical isolation, New Zealand would not escape the consequences of a nuclear conflict. Anti-nuclear sentiment has also been fanned by French intransigence in persisting with its nuclear testing program in the South Pacific, in defiance of the expressed views of countries in the region.
Against this background, the government has acted to implement the only practical measure of nuclear arms control available to it: the absolute exclusion of nuclear weapons from New Zealand. While New Zealand has never permitted the storing of nuclear weapons on its territory, the approach taken by previous governments, involving the unquestioning acceptance of the neither-confirm-nor-deny policy of the nuclear weapons states, meant that nuclear weapons were inevitably brought into New Zealand aboard visiting warships. To ensure that our exclusion of nuclear weapons is complete, the government decided, upon entering office in July 1984, that access to New Zealand’s ports would be granted only to those vessels which we could satisfy ourselves were neither nuclear-powered nor nuclear-armed. Given the neither-confirm-nor-deny stance of the nuclear powers, this means that the government has to make its decision on port access based on our own assessment of the weaponry carried by the vessel under consideration.
Early in 1985, the United States made a request for a port visit by a conventionally powered warship, the USS Buchanan. Because the government was unable to satisfy itself that the Buchanan was not carrying nuclear weapons, the American request was declined. In turning down this particular request, however, the government emphasized that it continued to welcome port visits by allied, including American, vessels that were conventionally powered and armed.
That policy reflects the fact that there is simply no need for nuclear weapons to be brought into New Zealand. The strategic environment does not call for nuclear weaponry. American strategists themselves have said that New Zealand does not form part of a nuclear strategy. Successive New Zealand governments have affirmed that ANZUS is not a nuclear alliance.
The minister of defense in the previous government wrote in his annual report in 1983 that "New Zealand is not a nuclear power and does not become one by association with nations that are. ANZUS is not a nuclear alliance. To suggest otherwise is nonsense." Under that government, New Zealand naval vessels exercised with U.S. naval vessels in the techniques of conventional, not nuclear, warfare. New Zealand does not ask, nor do we expect, to be defended by nuclear weapons. By keeping such weapons out of New Zealand, we aim to ensure both that a nuclear dimension is not inappropriately injected into our area and that we do not, even inadvertently, become embroiled in a nuclear strategy. The policy applies to all countries, without exception.
New Zealand has lent strong support in the South Pacific Forum to moves toward establishing a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone. The proposal has its roots partly in the Forum countries’ anger and frustration at continued French nuclear testing in French Polynesia. It also reflects the region’s fears about the possible dumping of nuclear waste in the South Pacific by countries outside the region. The nuclear-free zone proposal is essentially designed to enhance regional security. When in place, such a zone should greatly assist efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. It will demonstrate clearly that South Pacific countries do not want their region to become an arena for rivalry involving nuclear weapons.
The concept of a nuclear-free zone dates back some years. The Labour government, which held office in New Zealand from 1972 to 1975, promoted the initiative vigorously, but in subsequent years the proposal lost impetus. In August 1984, however, the Forum agreed on the desirability of establishing a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone at the earliest opportunity. An official working group established last year by the Forum has made good progress in developing the framework and elements of such a zone. As a result, it is expected that a draft treaty will be ready for preliminary consideration by the Forum at its meeting this August in the Cook Islands.
The draft treaty will be designed to prevent the manufacture, possession, stationing, testing and use of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. High seas freedoms for all nations will, of course, be respected in the draft proposal, while the issue of access to ports or airfields of Forum countries by nuclear-armed vessels or aircraft will be declared to be a matter for sovereign decision by each state. Once agreement is reached within the Forum on the draft treaty, assurances will be sought from all the nuclear weapons states that they will respect its provisions.
Antarctica is the other area of New Zealand’s strategic interest. The Antarctic Treaty has, for over 25 years now, successfully looked after New Zealand’s security interests in that area by defusing national rivalries and ensuring the non-nuclear status of the continent. New Zealand, like the United States, is a defender of the Antarctic Treaty, which we regard as a stabilizing factor in our part of the world. Any unraveling of the Antarctic Treaty system could only have an adverse impact on New Zealand’s security.
Critics of New Zealand’s exclusion of nuclear weapons have made grave accusations about the results of our policy. It is suggested that we are unwilling to pull our weight and contribute to the collective Western security effort, that our policies are in breach of ANZUS, or that we have deserted or weakened the Western alliance. Clearly, the government of New Zealand, a democratic government aligned with other democracies, would not have followed its chosen course had it intended any such result, nor would it maintain it should such a result eventuate.
ANZUS is as much the reflection and assertion of common interests as the framework of a formal military alliance. ANZUS is not the southern hemisphere replica of NATO. A South Pacific NATO was not, and is not, needed. The contrast is absolute between Europe, a landmass divided ideologically and physically into antagonistic blocs, and the South Pacific. The two treaties reflect these strategic circumstances: in terms of both their core provisions and the form of defense cooperation evolved, they differ fundamentally.
The ANZUS partners pledge to maintain and develop their individual and collective defense capacity; to consult when the security of any of the parties is threatened in the Pacific area; and to act, in accordance with constitutional processes, to meet the common danger presented by an armed attack on any of the parties in the Pacific area. Unlike NATO, the ANZUS partners have not moved toward formal military integration under a standing unified command structure. There are no ANZUS standing forces designated as such. Nor have defined military strategies or contingency plans been developed. ANZUS has, however, served as both catalyst and umbrella for a whole range of defense cooperation activities. It is that sort of cooperation which the United States has cut back drastically in protest at New Zealand’s policy on nuclear ship visits.
New Zealand’s commitment to democratic interests remains unshakable. We have made this plain, not only to our friends and allies, but also to the Soviet Union. Mischievous attempts by the Soviet Union to exploit the situation have been knocked back hard by us. I recently summoned the Soviet ambassador in New Zealand and told him in the strongest possible terms that the government took great offense at misleading attempts by agencies inside the Soviet bloc to depict New Zealand’s action as in any way supportive of nondemocratic interests. What was said at that meeting was widely publicized. There is no doubt in Moscow where New Zealand stands.
Those who question our willingness to pull our weight in the defense of democratic values and interests do us a grave disservice. New Zealand has an honorable history of military involvement in conflicts which did not pose any direct threat to it. New Zealand declared war on Germany in 1939, and throughout the war maintained at least a division in support of the Allied effort in the Middle East and Europe (an enormous contribution in terms of the New Zealand population and the fact that another division later had to be raised for the war in the Pacific). New Zealand forces served in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam.
New Zealand has long made a major and practical contribution to underpinning the peaceful, stable development and democratic orientation of the South Pacific. Our role here has been fundamental in maintaining the almost complete strategic denial of the region to Soviet penetration. In the wider regional setting, New Zealand has played a useful role in helping maintain peace and stability in Southeast Asia. Our involvement in the Five Power Defence Arrangements (which provide a framework for consultation and cooperation on defense matters between Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia and the United Kingdom), the permanent presence of an infantry battalion in Singapore, and our military assistance programs—largely training—with countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations highlight the positive contribution we make to the security of the region, thereby helping sustain broader Western interests. Further afield, New Zealand participates in the Sinai Multinational Peacekeeping Force—because the United States asked us to do so.
ANZUS is not a one-way street. It serves U.S. interests as much as New Zealand’s. Indeed, taking a look back over ANZUS’ 33-year history, one could argue persuasively that the burden of alliance membership for the United States has been rather light, and that ANZUS has represented a good return on America’s investment. Bear in mind that ANZUS has never yet been invoked, and unlike, say, Western Europe, neither New Zealand nor Australia has sought or received American aid, economic or military.
For the United States, ANZUS has provided a stable, reliable alliance with two friendly democracies in a region of growing strategic importance to America. It is worth emphasizing too that the low-key, practical role played by Australia and New Zealand, supportive of democratic interests in the Asia-Pacific region, is one that is often not available to the United States as a superpower. Because New Zealand is smaller and non-threatening, we have much greater freedom to work alongside formally nonaligned countries in sensitive areas like military training. I spell these points out because it is common interests like these which help underpin the relationship between New Zealand and the United States.
Our port access policy has given rise to a serious dispute with the United States. From New Zealand’s perspective, there is nothing in ANZUS that requires us to allow nuclear weapons into New Zealand. As I noted earlier, New Zealand does not form part of a nuclear strategy, and, in our view, nuclear weaponry is inappropriate to the security requirements of the South Pacific region.
The United States took a different approach. U.S. officials chose to see New Zealand’s action as an affront, although the New Zealand government had taken pains to stress that there was no element of anti-Americanism in the policy. More than that, the United States saw New Zealand’s action as a major default by a treaty partner, and responded in accord with that perception by severely curtailing its cooperation with New Zealand.
The fact that two treaty partners could take such different views of the character of the alliance raises serious questions as to how the alliance will be managed, and the security of the South Pacific maintained, in the future.
The dispute about access for nuclear weapons highlights differing perceptions between New Zealand and the United States about ANZUS and the Western alliance. U.S. foreign policy reflects, understandably, a global perspective. A major drawback of this perspective is that it encourages a rather unitary and indivisible approach to foreign policy matters. Relations with smaller powers, friends or foes, tend to be seen chiefly in the context, or as a function, of the central East-West relationship. Interpretations of particular issues or events tend similarly to be shaped by this overriding consideration. Specific factors or nuances differentiating a particular country or issue may, often unwittingly, be underplayed or overlooked in U.S. policy. Those critics who claim that New Zealand policies have undermined and weakened the Western alliance also tend to argue from this unitary premise. This, it seems to me, has a bearing on the ANZUS/ship visits issue in two rather important and fundamental ways.
First and foremost, the approach often fails to differentiate between different parts of the world. This is a vital point: the strategic circumstances of the South Pacific are entirely different from those of Western Europe or northeast Asia. The South Pacific is not an area of superpower rivalry or confrontation. The kinds of security threats faced by South Pacific countries are of a different order than those existing in Western Europe: these small island states tend, entirely realistically, to view their security as much in economic as in military terms. So, while we share the commitment of our friends and allies to uphold democratic values and interests, we maintain that the means used to defend those interests can and should vary from region to region, depending on the circumstances. It is this principle which underpins our anti-nuclear policies: the strategic environment in the South Pacific is such that nuclear weaponry is essentially irrelevant to the defense requirements of the region. The security threats most likely to arise in the South Pacific are those that could normally and best be handled in a low-key manner.
New Zealand recognizes that other democratic governments will want to act differently to safeguard their security—including accepting the nuclear deterrent—reflecting their own interest and circumstances. That is entirely comprehensible to us; we seek comprehension of our different circumstances in turn.
Second, a global, unitary approach tends to presuppose, erroneously, that the Western alliance is monolithic. It overlooks the fact that democracy derives its very strength and vitality from unity through diversity. Pluralism, the right to differ, is surely one of those fundamental values we seek to defend. Total uniformity of views is a characteristic of the Soviet bloc, not the West. As the 1983 ANZUS communiqué noted, "varying views and perspectives" are natural between free democratic nations. The New Zealand government has exercised its right, and indeed its obligation, to formulate independently security policies which accord with its perceived national interests and circumstances. That in no way diminishes our commitment to ANZUS and to the broader democratic community.
Disagreements between allies such as New Zealand and the United States are not unusual. They are to be expected. What has in this case surprised and saddened New Zealanders is the U.S. response. This was not how we expected the leading power of the West to treat a loyal friend and ally. Furthermore, with respect, it seems to us that the American approach runs counter to the United States’ own long-term interests.
First, we recognize that, fearful of the allegedly contagious effect our anti-nuclear stance on port access might have, the United States took retaliatory action which was as much a warning directed at others in the Western alliance as a rebuke to us. That is hardly in keeping with the pluralistic character of the Western alliance.
Second, the American response strikes us as potentially counterproductive in its apparent disregard for the United States’ own interests in the South Pacific. The important role New Zealand has played, and intends to go on playing, in helping to ensure the stability and prosperity of the South Pacific underpins ANZUS and serves American interests directly. It hardly makes sense, then, for America to make it harder—and its response has been damaging for New Zealand—for us to go on playing this role. Who is shooting whom in the foot?
The heat and passions aroused by the dispute about access for nuclear weapons now seem to have subsided to a degree, although essential questions remain to be answered. We have time for pause and reflection. Early progress seems unlikely. We need eventually to find a way forward and to explore means of reaching agreement about the basis of the relationship.
As a starting point, we must proceed from the premise that ANZUS exists because of the fundamental community of interests we share, not the other way around. These wide-ranging common interests imply a continuing close relationship across the board. From New Zealand’s perspective, over and beyond the security bond, we have long-standing intimate political links and interests worth protecting. The United States is our third largest trading partner, in terms of both imports and exports; it is also a leading source of technology, investment and tourism. Interwoven through this fabric of bilateral relations are the innumerable strands formed by extensive personal contacts.
My point is that we have too much in common and too much at stake for this present disagreement between us to linger unresolved. It is a matter for good alliance management. New Zealand understands that the leading role in the Western alliance is a form of burden for the United States; the rich diversity of nations and viewpoints make this an exacting and difficult task. It demands an awareness of fundamental values and interests, consistency of purpose, flexibility of approach, breadth of vision and considerable patience. And while it naturally demands a global perspective, it also requires an understanding of the regional perspectives smaller allies, by definition, will have.
The New Zealand government has a positive, forward-looking security policy. It is focused on the South Pacific, because that is where New Zealand’s dominant security interests and commitments lie, and where we have been most effective. This security policy, of which our anti-nuclear stance is an integral feature, reflects the political and geographical realities of our part of the world. While there is no immediate threat to the security of the region, we need to take constant care to ensure that one does not arise.
Over the years, New Zealand has made an important contribution to maintaining the peace and stability of the South Pacific. As our resources permit, we shall do more. The American decision to reduce defense cooperation with us has imparted urgency to our resolve, not least by encouraging us to go back to basics in policy terms: to reexamine New Zealand’s interests and assess how best to pursue them.
We are determined that New Zealand will accept its responsibilities for the security of the South Pacific. This will require us not only to work even more closely with friends and allies in the region, especially Australia, but also to play a much more genuinely self-reliant role ourselves. Our increased efforts will naturally be closely attuned to the security needs of the region, involving defense assistance (maritime surveillance, training, exercises), political cooperation, and economic and social assistance. It is worth pointing out again that, in playing this role, we are acting not only in New Zealand’s but also in the United States’ and broader democratic interests. And, by demonstrating a willingness to take a greater responsibility for our own defense and that of our region, we are acting in the spirit of President Nixon’s Guam Doctrine advocating greater self-reliance.
On the basis of this more active and self-reliant regional role, we will seek to consolidate, reorder where necessary and expand our important and substantial bilateral relationships with the United States and Australia. Over time, it seems to me likely that the underlying ties and interests which bind together the ANZUS partners will reassert themselves, leading to a resumption in due course of trilateral defense cooperation. If and when this occurs, however, such cooperation may well take a different form. Certainly, in any future trilateral defense cooperation, New Zealand will be a more independent, self-reliant and valuable partner.