Wednesday, 19 October 2016


The dance of the seven veils on United States Navy ship visits finally ended this week with the revelation that USS Samson, a guided missile destroyer, would represent the United States at the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Royal New Zealand Navy in November. But like the conclusion of most such dances, the final revelation was neither a great surprise, nor a moment of high drama.

Indeed, for many who had been watching the dance unfold over the last year, from the first indications the United States Navy might participate, through to the confirmation that a visit would occur, and then the disclosure of the ship’s identity, there had been a certain inevitability about the outcome. Early suggestions that the Americans might send an auxiliary vessel, or an icebreaker, or even a hospital ship were a little too cute to be credible. Indeed, such a move could have backfired badly, and left a strong impression that America was honouring the 75th anniversary of our Navy with the proverbial two-fingered salute. A destroyer like the Samson was the obvious choice. It is non-nuclear powered, and non-nuclear armed (not really an issue anyway since the first President Bush ordered the removal of nuclear weapons from American surface ships in 1992), so would clearly comply with the provisions of our anti-nuclear law.

Many are seeing this move as the culmination of the stand-off between the two countries following the ANZUS Row in 1985, and some are suggesting that it represents an American backdown, and so is a victory and vindication for the New Zealand stance. That may be so, but there is also another explanation to consider. The original 1985 crisis was as much a clash of vanities, as it was the matter of principle it subsequently became expressed as.

The Lange Labour Government had been elected in 1984 on a clear policy of no-nuclear ships being permitted in New Zealand, like the Kirk Government over a decade earlier. The focus was on nuclear weaponry, with the argument about propulsion being secondary, and somewhat less well thought through at the time. The combination of an ANZUS Council meeting coinciding with the election, and precipitate position taking by both the American Secretary of State and the New Zealand Prime Minister-elect and their respective officials put both sides on the back foot from the outset, and set up the scenario where it became impossible for either side to back down. So when the Americans offered to send an elderly non-nuclear, conventionally armed destroyer to New Zealand, it was inevitable that the New Zealand Government was obliged, for the sake of its own credibility, to say no. The rest, as they say, is history.

Not only, though, did the political leaders on both sides of the time have a lot invested in upholding their respective positions, so too did their officials. While politicians tend to come and go reasonably frequently, officials tend to be around for rather longer, and they are probably even more vain than their political masters. It was not reasonable to expect significant public rapprochement by either side, until that generation of officials had joined their political masters in moving on. Now, over 30 years later that has occurred, meaning there is no residual baggage for either President Obama or Prime Minister Key, making it possible for Foreign Minister McCully and Secretary of State Kerry to reach a deal last year.

There is an arguable irony that the nuclear stand-off which was precipitated by the proposed visit of the then 26 year old destroyer USS Buchanan is to be ended by another destroyer, the 10 year old USS Samson. While the Samson is coming for a specific reason – the celebration of the Navy’s 75th Anniversary – earlier ship visits were purely flag-waving exercises, for crew rest and recreation. Indeed, in the latter days of the Muldoon Government they seemed to be far more overtly timed to serve the domestic political interests of the pro-ANZUS Muldoon. (It is doubtful an American naval vessel has visited New Zealand for genuine operational reasons since World War II.)  The restoration of visits now is unlikely to lead to a surge of visits, nor a return to the days of the Nixon era where (because of that President’s great admiration of New Zealanders because of his wartime experiences in the Pacific) New Zealand naval vessels were able to freely provision and bunker at Pearl Harbour. Most important, though, New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation remains intact and will not change.

Thirty years on some may wonder what all the fuss was about. It was an important statement of our nationhood at the time which should not be diminished. Its lasting legacy is probably not so much in the policy itself, but much more in the fact that New Zealand’s ability to take its stand on important international issues has been recognised, and is unlikely to be tested in that way again.

Shortly before he became our first anti-nuclear Prime Minister Norman Kirk quipped, “All too often we have heard New Zealand foreign policy announced in Washington with an American accent.” The visit of the Samson confirms that once and for all those days are well and truly over.  

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