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US-New Zealand Relations: Room for Improvement
The Washington Diplomat / October 2010

By Larry Luxner

The United States and New Zealand could be best friends, yet until recently Washington didn’t give that friendship the attention it deserves because of the one issue that divides the two countries: nuclear proliferation.

So says Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. The top State Department official was one of four speakers at a Sep. 9 panel discussion sponsored by the Center for Strategic & International Studies and titled “Pacific Partners: The Future of U.S.-New Zealand Relations.”

Other panelists at the event were John Mullen, president of the United States-New Zealand Business Council; Ernie Bower, senior adviser and director of CSIS’s Southeast Asia program, and Michael Moore, New Zealand’s ambassador in Washington.

“When I took this job five years ago, U.S.-New Zealand relations were cordial, with cooperation in a variety of areas that recognized our historic ties — but colored by disagreements stemming from the 1980s [dispute] over nuclear-powered ships in New Zealand ports. Today, that relationship is dramatically different, characterized by both sides as the best in a quarter-century,” said Mullen.

“That’s because some wise people in Washington and Wellington decided that in the 21st century, the relationship between longtime friends that shared so much should not be defined by the one or two issues on which they disagree, but by what they have in common.”

Several years ago, a Friends of New Zealand Caucus was formed in the House of Representatives, and last year, the United States signed onto negotiations over a proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that grew out of a four-way initiative sponsored by the governments of New Zealand, Singapore, Chile and Brunei.

To that end, CSIS undertook a comprehensive study of bilateral relations. That study will be presented at a Feb. 20, 2011, meeting of the U.S.-New Zealand Partnership Forum in Christchurch.

Bower said the study would focus on five key areas: trade and investment; security; science, technology and education links; socio-cultural ties and transnational issues such as climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and disaster relief. The report — funded by Mullen’s council as well as its Auckland-based counterpart, the New Zealand-United States Council — is being directed by a high-level board of U.S. advisers composed of Mullen, Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Washington); CSIS President John Hamre and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

On the New Zealand side, advisers include former Prime Minister James Bolger and former Foreign Minister and Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon, as well as Russell Marshall, president of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, and John Wood, a former ambassador to the United States.

“This study is timely, it’s constructive, and it’s a useful contribution to our relationship,” said Moore. “That relationship has been growing, and one day, our historians will look back with puzzlement as to why it wasn’t growing faster.”

Added Campbell: “Not only is this report unbelievably timely, but if it can be used as a vision document, a road map, it could help drive this relationship over the next couple of years. When governments come into power, they always do studies. We should commend the good work of the Bush administration and Chris Hill [Campbell’s predecessor at the State Department], but it became very clear to us that this bilateral relationship was underperforming.”

Except for the nuclear issue, he said, “New Zealand has been a friend and supporter. It was clear that we needed to take steps to move beyond nuclear-related matters, and focus more on issues that unite us than which divide us. That doesn’t mean the nuclear issue is not a difficult one. It is, but there are so many other matters that really require closer cooperation.”

Campbell said that since Obama’s inauguration, “there’s been a deeper interaction between the two countries at the highest levels” ¬— on issues ranging from Afghanistan to regional security to climate change.

“Ambassador Moore delicately said that Prime Minister Key made a contribution. I would go well beyond that; he’s developed real chemistry with President Obama,” Campbell told his audience, adding that the United States and other countries have basically adopted a policy that New Zealand has been pushing for years: nonproliferation.

“The U.S. needs to profoundly step up its game in the Pacific. In the last 20 years, we have essentially walked away from some of our most important strategic and moral commitments in the Pacific — areas where our fathers fought and Americans died. New Zealand has been one of those countries urging the United States to play a more active role in the humanitarian challenges many of these small, poor island nations face.”

Moore said he would like to see Congress approve a free-trade agreement with the Pacific region under the sponsorship of the TPP.

“This is our most serious and significant regional initiative,” he said. “It’s about everybody winning. Let’s produce a model for the 21st century. We have friends in high places, and we’ll be asking them to make the case for us. This is not a contradiction to our work at the WTO, nor is it a contradiction to APEC. Let’s get something up here of stunning substance that can be announced.”

He added, however, that “this is a complex town, and we understand that we have to do our share. Having best friends is not enough.”

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