Ignore the spin: The United States has backed down after 31 years and confirmed it will send a non-nuclear ship to New Zealand. The super power has lost. But does that mean New Zealand has won?

This is an historic day for New Zealand. The day the world's superpower blinked after a generation-long staring contest. The day America, in any meaningful sense, abandoned its 'neither confirm nor deny' policy. The day the mouse's roar was truly heard.

It was mid-summer in 1985 when the then-Labour government under David Lange – an almost accidental champion of the nuclear-free clause – told its ANZUS partner America that the USS Buchanan would not be welcome in New Zealand waters while it would neither confirm nor deny whether the destroyer was carrying nuclear weapons.

It was the end of the tripartite military alliance as the US suspended military ties with New Zealand, angered at a sense of betrayal by its long-time ally in the South Pacific. But New Zealanders were in the grip of something new – the first boomer-led government, the beginnings what would become the Rogernomics revolution and a sense of independence as it stepped out of the shadows of the late Muldoon years. And remember, this was just a few years after the '81 Springbok Tour, which had demonstrated the power of protest and during which the country had oft been reminded that taking a moral stance on international issues mattered.

New Zealand was The Mouse that Roared, and while we have never invaded America, the way the argument escalated and now the super power's unlikely back-down does have echoes of Leonard Wibberley's 1955 novel.

Little ol' New Zealand, like the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, has forced an unlikely capitulation from the world's super power, which spends more on its military than the next 19 biggest spending countries combined.

Of course neither New Zealand or the US want to characterise it that way. "It's not a victory for one side or a defeat for the other," said John Key diplomatically. Joe Biden says America will still neither confirm nor deny whether the ship is nuclear powered or carrying nuclear weapons, but is delighted to celebrate the New Zealand Navy's 75th anniversary by sending a ship. It's "another expression of our close and cooperative relationship," he says.

We are back to being very, very, very good friends now.

But let's be clear: New Zealand law requires the Prime Minister only to permit the entry if he is satisfied "that the warships will not be carrying any nuclear explosive device upon their entry into the internal waters of New Zealand".

Lisa Owen asked US ambassador Mark Gilbert about this on The Nation late last year:

Owen: Okay, so will you send a ship that complies with our laws? Let me put it that way.

Gilbert: First of all, a decision has not been made whether we're going to be able to send a ship or not.

If you were to send one, would you send one that complied with our laws?

We will always stay with our 'neither confirm nor deny' policy.

You're going to stick hard and fast with that?

We always have.

But do you actually want to send a ship? Would you like to?

I would like for us to send a ship, and it's something that's being discussed at high levels of our government to make a determination of whether we'll be able to or not.

But if you want to send a ship, that, in essence, would amount to a back-down, because you'd be coming on our terms.

That's actually not correct. When we've always talked about sending vessels here, it's never been on any terms but the ones that we've always had, which is the 'neither confirm nor deny'. I think what's really important here is if you look at the relationship between New Zealand and the United States and how it's grown, it may even be at the best place that it has ever been. And I think that that's really what's important.

But when it comes down to this ship visit, if you send a ship, whether you have a 'neither confirm nor deny' policy, if you were to send a ship, you are implicitly confirming that it is a non-nuclear ship, and therefore, New Zealand policy has stood up; you've bowed down.

I wouldn't use that phraseology at all. I wouldn't say that it is bowing down. When we send aircraft here, troops here, there are certain ways that the New Zealand Government signs off on that, and we've been doing that for many years. I know when China, France, the UK, which are all nuclear countries, send ships, the government of New Zealand takes a look at the vessels, they make a determination on their own, and then they give the approval for the ships. And the policy wouldn't be, nor should it be, any different for the United States.

Yet a back-down it is. While Gilbert was in the farcical situation of not simply being able to say that America would comply with New Zealand law and America might continue to say it is neither confirming nor denying, Key will have to have confirmed the ship's non-nuclear status or be in breach of our own law. And anyway, it was back in 1991 when George Bush ordered nuclear weapons off US naval vessels, saying, "Under normal circumstances, our ships will not carry tactical nuclear weapons.” So while America's pride demands the pretence of 'neither confirm nor deny', it is protected by a fig leaf, and a thin and minuscule one at that. So why such a back-down? What's changed in 31 years? In that time the Cold War has ended and terrorism has become the greatest threat to the West. America has bungled various invasions and found itself increasingly in need of friends and wanting to work more closely with like-minded nations as it has tarnished its own reputation. New Zealand has re-earned the trust of the US – and done our bit in its hour of need – through our commitment of soldiers (including the SAS) to Afghanistan and now in Iraq. Then, as the thaw continued, came the Wellington Declaration in 2010. But perhaps most of all, what's changed in the past 31 years is the rise of China and the importance of the Pacific to America's national interests. President Obama has declared the region his country's top foreign policy priority, and while the actions have not exactly matched the words, it's clear that with the rise of China, America feels the need for allies in this neck of the woods more than ever. So has New Zealand "won", as some have said? It would be a stretch to characterise it as a victory; other countries did not follow our lead in the protest against nuclear weapons, the world is not rid of nuclear weapons and some even say the risk of a nuclear catastrophe is greater now than it's ever been. It would be hard to argue that there has been a peace dividend of any kind earned by the stance we took, either regionally or globally. When the super powers did start to act unilaterally on their nuclear stockpiles, it had nothing to do with our nuclear-free promise. And it came with a price. For better or worse, the stance arguably cost us an earlier free-trade deal with the US, when we were left out of the US-Australia deal in 2004. Yet the pay-off for New Zealand has been our early in-roads with China and our reputation, in the region especially, for even-handedness and independence of thought (in contrast to Australia's 'deputy sheriff' image). But perhaps most enduringly, the nuclear-free dividend has been paid in our own sense of pride and independence as a country. We took a moral and political stance as a nation and it was a stance on the right side of history – as those who stand for peace almost always are. And while today's significance has not been appreciated as widely as it might, we can now say that our stance forced a little humility on the world's super power. And as the relationship resets and the US military returns to our waters, it is on our terms. Not theirs. Ours. We remain sovereign here and hopeful; a shining city set on a hill that speaks of peace. 

Comments (22)

by barry on July 22, 2016

How is it different from the Buchanan?

Everybody agrees that the Buchanan in 1985 almost certainly would not have been carrying nuclear weapons.  The NZ prime Minister was unable to get a categorical statement to that effect so it was refused.

If the US send a ship that is equipped to carry nuclear weapons then who is going to say that it is definitely not carrying them?  No NZ official is in a position to make that call.

The only difference is a Prime Minister who will interpret the law differently.

by Fentex on July 22, 2016

The only difference is a Prime Minister who will interpret the law differently.

Interpret the facts differently, not the law. If we assume Mr Key isn't ignoring legal strictures he may simply take a more trusting attitude towards the U.S. in a different environment where he has more leeway than Lange did, and doesn't require, seek nor expect the same political capital to be had from making it an issue.

by Andrew Geddis on July 22, 2016
Andrew Geddis

Further to Fentex's thoughts ... with regards the Buchanan, it deliberately was chosen as an offered visitor at that time because of its ambiguity. It could have had nukes, but most probably didn't. So it was a test for how serious we were about our policy - was it mere lip service (as with the Nordic countries' similar "no nukes" policy, which effectively turned a blind eye to whatever the US did), or did we really mean what we said (if we think there might be nukes and the US won't say whether there are, then no entry)?

The situation now is quite different. The global expert consensus is that US surface ships aren't carrying nukes at all - these now are submarine based only. So it's entirely reasonable for a NZ PM to conclude there's no chance a surface ship visiting NZ has no nukes on it. And that is what the legislation requires - not that the US tell us that they don't.

by barry on July 22, 2016

So the odds are slightly different, makes it all right?

I think it is a different interpretation of the PM's obligations under the law.  He can't possibly get a MFAT official to tell him in writing that the ship will not be nuclear armed.  (Unless the US send a hospital ship or freighter).

I think Fentex is closer to the truth.  The political situation is different.  In 1985, the cold war was still in play and the level of global concern about nuclear weapons was higher.  There is no domestic political price for Key to be relaxed about the situation.

As someone who was on the streets, on the harbours and in the police cells in 1984-85, it all looks the same.  If a Buchanan-equivalent comes to any harbour near me, i will be out with my kayak.

by Tim Watkin on July 22, 2016
Tim Watkin

Barry, a few things have changed. That declaration by George Bush for one. I don't think you appreciate that US naval vessels no longer carry nuclear weapons and haven't since the 90s, so they can't send a vessel with nuclear weapons.

And of course the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987 for another.

by Tim Watkin on July 22, 2016
Tim Watkin

And sorry that the back part of the post has all run-on together. Sigh.

by Murray Grimwood on July 22, 2016
Murray Grimwood

This was a big thing, 35 years ago. I went out and protested the Longbeach further back than that. But that was the Cold War. This is now.

The US is now engaged in a fight - or series of fights - to maintain the flow of resources required to maintain the American Way of Life (not negotiable, apparently).

They fly drones half-way round the world to take out the disgruntled people their resource-grab has rendered disgruntled.

The 64 thousand dollar question now is whether - given that she's outsourced all the stuff once done in the Rustbelt - she can maintain the inevitable war with China. Because there's not enough planet left for China to get where the US is, that a certainty. And will whoever goes down in that one - the last possible world war, physics-wise - hit the nuke button out of who-cares spite?



by Wayne Mapp on July 23, 2016
Wayne Mapp

Less a comment to Tim, more a comment to Murray. The majority of recent attacks seem aimed at Europe not the US, may because Europe is easier, but perhaps also about Europe's colonial past.

As for the 64 thousand dollar question. There is plenty of resources on the planet for the Chinese people to attain US or European standards of living. China has already got a car for every 8 people, and at the current build rate of 30 million cars per year will soon get to a car for every 4 people (using car ownership as a proxy for living standards). The reality is that resources expand to requirements, that is more are discovered and lower ore grades are used. In essence this a question as to whether the planet can support 8 to 9 billion people to western standards of living (especially energy and resource efficient Europeans and Japanese). In my view the answer is yes. For instance Europe has substantially reduced its carbon footprint in the last decade, they have more forest and clean water than for the last 150 years. The rest of the world will follow. 

War between China and the US - it won't happen. Tension/incidents yes, war no. And ironically given Tim's post, the fact that China and the US both have a full nuclear deterrent capability will be one of the key reasons why they won't go to war. Though I do get the point that one of the dangers of nuclear weapons and a key reason to get rid of them is a Cuba missile situation. We may not always be as lucky as we were in 1962.

by Charlie on July 24, 2016

This is a minor side issue in a much bigger movement.

The US is now refocusing on the Pacific and will reduce involvement in Europe and the Middle East for the following reasons:

1. It is becoming independent of Gulf oil. It still needs the oil to flow but a lack of it won't bring it to its knees. Thanks to fracking and the addition of Iranian and Iraqi oil, there is a long term glut.

2. This same glut has brought Russia to its knees. They are no longer a global threat. Maybe not even a regional threat now they're broke.

3. Americans are sick and tired of Europeans not pulling their weight in NATO. Both Clinton and Trump have made statements about reducing involvement in Europe. It's time for Europeans to stand up for themselves.

4. America intends to face up to China. It cannot afford to have China take control of the South China Sea and and expand influence into the archipelago and Pacific Islands . It will capitalize on China's failed diplomatic strategy - one which attempted to bully all the neighbouring states into submission.

Along the way we're just a box that needs ticking. 



by Stewart Hawkins on July 24, 2016
Stewart Hawkins

"... and terrorism has become the greatest threat to the West" -Tim

"The majority of recent attacks seem aimed at Europe not the US, may (sic) because Europe is easier, but perhaps also about Europe's colonial past" - Wayne

We need to stop pussyfooting around. Not "terrorism", Islam is the greatest threat to Western civilisation. In fact, aside from nuclear or natural disaster, it has been for all of its 1400 years of violent Jihad against every non-Islamic civilisation. I think the USA is rebalancing to the Pacific for the right geo-political reasons but the European failure to prevent mass immigration, indeed, positively encourage their own civilisations' suicide, is seeing the USA look more uncomfortable in being there to defend whatever may be left after several more decades of, essentially, civil war. That war is in its infancy but without urgent, strong and unpleasant actions appears inevitable to this commentator.

by Charlie on July 24, 2016

You make a fair point Stewart

Terrorism, although tragic for those involved is at the most a mere pinprick to western society. In the long run it may be beneficial if it alerts the slumbering middle classes to the tsunami that is heading their way.

The real threat posed by Islam is based on demographics. With their massive fertility rates and continued migration, it won't be so long before their votes start to matter and politicians begin to gently bend to their demands. Of course it will all be cloaked in disarming terminology. They will offer 'decentralization of justice services' and make police 'more responsive to local needs' which in reality will mean sharia courts in ghettos and police looking the other way when confronted with more Pakistani rape gangs or Somalis mutilating the genitalia of their daughters.

Europe is on the cusp


by Murray Grimwood on July 25, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Wayne - it never ceases to amaze me how many folk - purportedly thinking folk - don't 'get' depletion running concurrently with exponential growth.

The last 'doubling-time' of the exponential growing in consumption (of anything finite) is from '50% gone' to 'all gone'. Do it at 3% growth, the last half of your planetary resource gets gobbled up in 24 years.

Sorry, but there isn't enough to go round now. China started too late - and pointing to her growing collection of fossil-fuelled cars isn't going to change anything, as Kunstler says about US suburbia (car-based) - it's the biggest misallocation of resources the planet has ever seen.

It doesn't matter how efficient the Europeans - or anyone else gets, either. That just reduces the rate of depletion.

Meantime we have boosters claiming we have a 'glut'. All we are doing is taking area from the right-hand end of the Hubbert (gaussian, bell) curve and sticking it up the top as we go over it. That just makes the drop-off ever-steeper. Called a Seneca Event or Seneca Cliff.


We will have war, over resources and most likely fossil energy resources, in the near future, Can't not. The same way you can't claim that we can support xyz billion 'because we're doing that now'. Actually we arent, we are drawing down, dreg-bound and accelerating. Amazing folk can't - or choose no to - see this.

by Tim Watkin on July 26, 2016
Tim Watkin

Charlie, I agree we're just a box that needs ticking, but it's a significant tick in our history. And while the US is less dependent on Middle East oil, I think it's a long bow to say they will take less of an interest in the Middle East as a result. They still need oil for many years to come and the alliances now run deep. And the proof is in the deployments; despite the Pacific Pivot years ago now and all the rhetoric, US sacrifice of blood and treasure remains higher in the Middle East than anywhere else.

And I certainly disagree on Russia. Economically wounded yes, but you know what they say about a wounded bear. Ask Ukraine if they're not a regional power.


by Tim Watkin on July 26, 2016
Tim Watkin

Stewart, I think that's nonsense. There's nothing insightful about unthinkingly brandishing the peaceful millions of the Muslim faithful around the world as a threat to western civilisation; quite the opposite.

It's simply illogical. Many terrorists may be Muslim, but not all Muslims are terrorist. What then more precisely presents the threat – those hundreds of millions of Muslims or the few who commit acts of terror, whatever their beliefs? And, as I'm sure you appreciate, some of those presenting as terrorists in the name of Islam are using a faith as window dressing for mental health or other personal issues.

If you're going back 1400 years I can think of a few other faiths or ideologies that would trump those Jihadists in the number of lives taken and terror created.

I may even have over-reached slightly in the sentence you quote. I meant that terrorism has replaced the Cold War as the prime focus of most western military and intelligence agencies. Arguably there are greater threats to the West, climate change being one.

While Europe certainly has a tangle of issues, some argue that toddlers present more of a risk to life and limb than terrorists do, when it comes to daily life and death in the US.

by Angela Hart on July 27, 2016
Angela Hart

So in fact the US has given no assurance whatever that the visiting ship will not be nuclear? That's quite a political risk John Key is taking if evidence should emerge to the contrary.

by Stewart Hawkins on July 27, 2016
Stewart Hawkins

Hi Tim, It it is not illogical and neither is it nonsense to understand the Islamic civilisation is not simply a faith like Christianity or any of the other world religions. Islam is a brew of politics, religion and war. To be a Muslim means the adherent has surrendered themselves to this belief system. Muslims are not loyal or part of a nation such as New Zealand in anything but convenience. They await the caliphate. Ask them. I have, admittedly choosing my subjects carefully - professionals. Here are some examples -I asked two Malaysian Muslim medical students studying here what sort of medicine they intended to practice on their return to KL. They replied they has no intention to return, they were here to stay and make NZ an Islamic nation. A very serious and unexpected response. A senior doctor here told me that he didn't care if all New Zealand women were forced to wear burkas "Why should I care? I am a man" still rings in my ears. If you do not recognise the clash of civilisations that is continuing today, especially in Europe, as exactly that and not just "lone wolves" (I am guessing that even you might start to be growing tired of that MSM excuse for murder in the name of Islam) "expressing themselves" then I suggest you spend a few hours in study - check this site politicalislam.com by Bill Warner. You suggest there have been other ideologies with a higher body count.. this is completely irrelevant to my argument.. one murder doesn't make another right or understandable but just to indulge you go ahead and try...Slaves: estimated death of about 120 million people.Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture, BasicBooks, 1994, p. 188, 60 million Christians Raphael Moore in History of Asia Minor, 10 million buddhists David B. Barrett, Todd M. Johnson, World Christian Trends AD 30-AD 2200, 80 million Hindus Koenard Elst, Negationism in India, Voice of India, New Delhi, 2002.

In modern times the Brookings Institute calculates that 77% of "terrorist" attacks are performed in the name of Islam. There have been over 28000 such attacks since 9/11. Your final suggestion seems to be that toddlers are a threat to Western civilisation, yet the irony is that the lack of Western toddlers and the truly massive demographic shift to Muslim toddlers is the real threat.

by Rich on July 28, 2016

Angela: it would require the US to have a secret stash of a weapons type that it decommissioned some years ago.

And the positive outcome that NZ can be proud of helping in is that the US (and Britain, possibly other states) decided to stop deploying nuclear weapons with front-line tactical units - partly because doing so reduced the ability of those units to visit friendly states.

by Donald Ellis on July 30, 2016
Donald Ellis

I so hope the US send USS Constitution or possibly USCGC Eagle. Don't think there could be any dispute then.

by Charlie on July 31, 2016

Tim, before to describe Stewart's views as nonsense, I suggest you look at the facts.

Pew Research has investigated this issue in depth, and much to the horror of western liberals, a large percentage of Muslims globally do in fact support Sharia and Jihad.

My point is that they may be peaceful (for now) but the fundamentals of their faith mean they will use our western democracy and freedoms get their way.




by Murray Grimwood on August 02, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Ah yes, Charlie. The required spin; there must be a bogey-man to keep the punters in line. Fear of Hell, the dratted Hun, Terrorists......

All the while the truth of the matter is that the real terrorists are us. We are the winners in the resource-grab game - nobody, of any 'faith' would bother fighting if they had 'enough'.

But we can't be admitting that now, can we? Not even the Lefties are up to that level of dispassionate honesty.

by Tim Watkin on August 02, 2016
Tim Watkin

Stewart, all faiths are a brew of politics and religion and many have either caused or been used as excuses for wars. Jesus turned over the tables in the temple, hung out with women and tax-collectors and preached the value of slaves, told stories that put the hated Samaritans in a good light (you could insert radical Islamist in that slot today), rattled the local Romans and ultimately western civilisation.

In fact everything you claim about Islam you could claim about Christianity. For example, you could say Christians are awaiting the second coming, theologically speaking. But only a mad few try to prompt it. Equally, you could talk to many Christians in predominantly Muslim countries who would like to win souls for Jesus there. Most faiths are in part evangelical.

But hey, you have two Muslims you once chatted to and a physicist who parades as a religious expert for his own self-proclaimed study centre to rely on for information, so who am I to question your "research"?

Come on. You're still making vast generalisations and judging the many by the few. Another hardly original example: If you judged Christianity by the standards of the crusader era, you would wish for an end to that faith. But the renaissance, reformation, fight against slavery and much more was still to come. Undeniably Islam has some very dark sides to it right now, but that's no excuse for lazy prejudice.

by Tim Watkin on August 02, 2016
Tim Watkin

Charlie, many Muslims do support sharia law and, in most of its expressions, I would oppose that. (Most Americans support the death penalty and think highly of a president such as Reagan who, for example, deregulated the economy to the detriment of millions and illegally funded murderous warlords, and I oppose that too. That's simply more evidence that you want to be careful about gross generalisations.).

Jihad can have many different meanings, so you have to be careful there. I'd even go so far as to say that there's certainly a tension between some tenets of the Islamic faith and democracy... although I'm open to being convinced otherwise by someone who knows more.

But I wouldn't go so far as to say western democracy gets in their way, otherwise you'll have to explain away the Arab spring and the democracy protesters in Iran, the Muslims in the US and NZ, and so many others, who seem quite happy to live out lives of faith in (or in the quest of) a democracy.


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