The Mouse that Roared: NZ's historic day as the US backs down

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.