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New Zealand's new best friend?

opinion

By Q+A producer Tim Watkin

Published: 7:58PM Thursday October 08, 2009 Source: Q+A

  •  (Source: ONE News)
    Source: ONE News

To the average Kiwi in the street, the fact that America is actively reviewing its relationship with New Zealand and has confirmed it will begin training with our troops after a 25 year hiatus may not seem an especially big deal. In diplomatic circles, however, it's a huge gain, the most exciting development in New Zealand-United States relations for quite some time.

Diplomacy is usually a game of inches; all nudges, winks and incremental gains that only become significant over time. So any decision to kick-start military training, as indicated to TVNZ by the Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt M. Campbell this week, is a genuine step change.

Joint military training and exercises have been effectively banned since we said no to the USS Buchanan back in 1985. While US authorities don't even officially confirm its existence, a presidential directive was signed-off ordering US troops not to play ball with their New Zealand counterparts. Since the turn of the century, our two countries have come closer together, especially after the attacks of September 11, 20001 when America realised it needed all the friends it could get.

Slowly, relations have been rebuilt, from Colin Powell's "very, very, very good friends" to Condaleezza Rice's use of the word "ally" last year, and it was America that was inching closer to us rather than the other way round. For all the talk that the US was looking for ways to reconnect, the words hadn't exactly been matched by action, however. Not until yesterday, anyway. We've still been in the dog-house in terms of military ties.

It seems our government's decision to send the SAS back to Afghanistan again has provoked the US to act. With the SAS, third time's the charm, or so it appears. America is now actively reviewing its relationship with New Zealand and we can once again train with our traditional allies.

The New Zealand government's position had been to not push the US on joint exercises; it could come when it would come. But the US recognised the obvious - that it was ridiculous that our troops could fight and die alongside Americans, but not train with them. America trains with China, Russia, and even in July held a joint exercise with the military in Cuba, a country it still has sanctions against. Did it make sense to maintain a more hostile position towards l'il ol' New Zealand than it did to Cuba?

Given that our original sin was to become nuclear-free, America's finger-waving and tutt-tutting has become even less logical since President Barack Obama announced in April that he wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons and that America itself would, "take concrete steps. ... We will begin the work of reducing our arsenals and stockpiles."

So, as you'll see on Q+A this coming Sunday, Guyon Espiner put it to Campbell that the 'no joint exercises' position was absurd, and Campbell agreed, promising to act.

And yet you might still be asking, so what? Well, the ultimate goal for New Zealand in all this manoeuvring is a free-trade deal. Military exercises is a means to an end. But how likely is that end? America's still to announce the results of a "stocktake" by Trade Representative Ron Kirk into its free trade deals. South Korea and Colombia have deals all-but concluded and waiting in the queue. Obama has healthcare reform and then climate change laws to get through Congress, and is in no position to alienate the left of his party by raising new free-trade deals. And even then, the battle to get agriculture included in any deal - and without it, there's little point - will be long and hard.

The other issue that this government has to tread very carefully around is how the rest of the world will perceive our re-engaging with the US. John Key, Murray McCully et al seem more than happy to snuggle back up to America. But we've carved out a considered, wise and profitable independent foreign policy in recent years and that shouldn't be given up in a sudden rush of blood to the head. It is giving us standing in Asia and beyond, is opening trade and diplomatic doors and is keeping us safe.

So before we get over-excited about being BFF again with the big super power to the north, we need to ask very carefully just how close we want to get.

Guyon Espiner's extended interview with Kurt Campbell screens on Q+A this Sunday, 9am.

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