Staying relevant II - NZ's nuclear potential

When Hillary Clinton does make it to New Zealand, we need to be talking nukes with her. The time is ripe for New Zealand to offer its support to Obama's crusade

As the government looks to increase New Zealand's relevance on the world stage, it has focused largely on business relationships, re-connecting with America and, as I wrote yesterday, its Global Research Alliance. Yet there's another opportunity for New Zealand to take a lead in world affairs that is ripe for the plucking.

After years of tension around our anti-nuclear policy, it now has the potential to be a major foreign policy asset, at least for as long as the Obama administration is in office.

The fourth Labour government's decision to make New Zealand nuclear-free exploded the ANZUS alliance and placed us firmly in America's bad books. Yet after 23 years of being shunned for our nuclear-free legislation, the world has moved in our direction and we are well placed to lead on what is becoming an issue of huge international import. (Thank goodness our policy wasn't "gone by lunchtime").

It's remarkable how much opinions have changed. The quantum leap was most notably expressed in 2007, when two former secretaries of state, a former secretary of defense and a former senate committee chair wrote an op-ed in the Wall St Journal calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. They weren't just any secretaries of state either. One was none other than Henry Kissinger; the other, George Shultz, the man who had rushed to New Zealand in an attempt to bully David Lange out of going nuclear-free.

The group argued that deterrence had worked during the cold war, but was now out-dated; nuclear proliferation was the greater threat. Since then more than two-thirds of the living former secretaries of state and defense and national security advisers have publicly expressed their support for what had previously been dismissed as a peacenik's dream. Even John McCain has affirmed the idea.

As Sojourner magazine wrote last year, in a piece about Shultz and his change of mind:

“As more countries have nuclear weapons, as people worry more about the fissile material that may be lying around that can lead to a nuclear weapon, the less confidence anybody can have that deterrence can be relied on as a way of keeping them from being used,” [Schultz said]. This is because it’s impossible to deter a non-state nuclear actor. Terrorist groups lack the return address upon which deterrence strategy depends...

For Shultz, this doesn’t mean that deterrence was misguided during the Cold War. Rather, it’s simply that times have changed—from the balance of a US-Soviet bipolarity to the unstable asymmetry of our day. In our current context and any foreseeable future, the indefinite existence of nuclear weapons would inevitably result in their use.

The only solution, Shultz believes, is the total elimination of nuclear weapons. He has no illusions that doing so will be easy—he just knows it’s necessary.

All of which is political cover for a president who is more than hinting that nuclear non-proliferation could be at the heart of the legacy he aspires to.

Barack Obama had the shortest of senate careers before running for the presidency, but one bill he did put his name to, back in 2007, was a "$48 million funding increase to be used to destroy conventional weapons stockpiles, intercept weapons of mass destruction and respond to proliferation emergencies".

He's maintained his beliefs in office. In April last year in Prague, he famously called "a world without nuclear weapons". Visiting Russia in July, he announced a "road map" by which Russia and the US would cut their nuclear arsenals by a third, to between 1500 and 1675 warheads each. In September, he used his turn in the chair of the UN Security Council to pass a resolution calling for the end to the proliferation of atomic weapons.

Then, in October, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in part for his efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Some dismiss Obama's manoeuvrings as a pipe dream and an odd obsession. But this guy is serious. While he has spent much of his political capital at home on surviving the recession and (almost) passing universal healthcare, he still has a treasure chest of capital on the world stage.

If, as seems likely, he chooses to spend that cutting nuclear proliferation, he will need credible allies. Who better than New Zealand? We have the perfect track record.

As Obama pushes his campaign against nuclear weapons to the top of global priorities – alongside climate change and south and central Asia – New Zealand can use its reputation and expertise to once again box above our weight in world affairs, gaining from all the positives that go with it. That is, if the government plays its hand correctly.

This move towards a political consensus on nuclear non-proliferation amounts to this country's biggest foreign affairs opportunity in years. By the time Hillary Clinton does make it to New Zealand, let's hope we're poised to act on it.