On Thursday, United States Vice President Joe Biden confirmed during a meeting with Prime Minister John Key in Auckland that America would send a ship to the New Zealand Navy’s 75th anniversary celebrations.
The US has not sent a naval ship since 1983, as it refuses to say whether its ships are nuclear-armed, as required by New Zealand’s nuclear-free law.
Our law is simple enough. You want to send military vessels into our waters, you tell us whether they’re nuclear-armed. You don’t, you can’t. We’re told officials will “assess” whether this one complies with the law. How? Are they wizards?
I’m not surprised our government is keen to get an American warship here, and act like it’s no big deal. John Key has always been clear that he wants to be Obama’s bestie, that New Zealand is part of “the club” and has to pay its dues and look deferential.
But this is a big deal. So I’m more surprised by David Shearer’s comments:
New Zealand and America could now move beyond that chapter in their relationship, with their heads held high.
It would be easy to work out whether the ship complied with the law, he said.
Apparently David Shearer is also a wizard. But on “moving beyond that chapter”, I have an alternative view.
New Zealand’s rejection of nuclear power, and nuclear ship visits, is one of the proudest points of our history. It’s on the great list of Times We Stood Against The World Because We’re Scrappy Little Fighters Who Do What’s Right along with opposing French nuclear tests in the Pacific, not going into Iraq in 2003, and (although this remains a divisive topic, progressives still take pride in) opposing the Springbok Tour.
The images of mass protests on land and water against US vessels entering our ports are a literally iconic part of our progressive heritage.
I realise that’s uncomfortable for people who have a different stance on our place in the world – that we need to prove we’re mature enough to sit at the grown-up table in our suits and ties, and that our great international achievements should be measured by how many fancy titles our retired politicians can win, rather than how many powerful noses we’ve tweaked.
For the young ones, however, those born around the time the no-nukes legislation was passed, they have far more pressing concerns – like finding a job, paying off a student loan, finding an affordable home. This isn’t their issue. But for those of us who lived through that time, the visit by a US Navy ship is a big deal. And a sign that not only have we grown up. But that the US has too.
I was one year old when our government rejected a visit by the USS Buchanan. Three-and-a-half when the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act came into effect. And I can chew gum and think about our country’s role in international politics at the same time.
This ship visit is a power move. It’s a way for the United States to call dibs on our loyalty, and reinforce to us plebs that they’re our benevolent boss. It’s a way to impose a new narrative on our country’s relationship to the US – a willing member of whatever the next coalition will be.
The world hasn’t fundamentally changed since the 70s and 80s. The USA still wants to spread and secure its influence over as much of the world as possible, to build alliances against its ideological foes. Its allies risk becoming targets.
If the United States has “grown up” in terms of foreign policy, it is only by doing exactly the same thing it’s always done, just with bigger weapons and more massive civilian casualties.
I’d rather stay at the kids’ table.
By great luck, I hadn’t written this up before I went to the world premier (fancy!) of The 5th Eye, a new Kiwi documentary on … well, everything. Echelon, drone strikes, our military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the raid on Kim Dotcom’s house, our nuclear-free policy, the “attack” on the Waihopai spy base in 2008, Edward Snowden, and yes. Ship visits.
All these threads are tied together with brilliant clarity and our governments – several of them – don’t come off particularly well. About the only person who manages to make John Key look good is Jonathan Coleman, whose cringing obsequiousness as our Minister of Defence is just humiliating.
If you have a chance to see The 5th Eye at the NZ International Film Festival this month, go. You certainly won’t think positively about a US warship visiting our harbours after you do.
Now if only we had a major Opposition party willing to stand up and say “there is an alternative”.
Here’s a pair of Kiwi tracks to get you in a good mood for Monday: