We got the power... So now what?

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta's visit marks a turn in New Zealand-United States relations. We have won the cake and are getting to eat it too, but that doesn't mean there aren't still risks

I can almost hear David Lange chuckling from the grave and making some quip about vindication. From all we know about the fourth Labour government's handling of our push to be nuclear-free it was defined by chaos, cock-ups and misunderstandings. But this weekend the US threw in the towel in what you might call our 'cold spat'. We won. Kind of.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was in town talking about "a new era" in New Zealand-United States relations. But he went further. In his only interview (yep, on Q+A), he said:

"I mean, my approach to this as Secretary of Defence is whatever we can do to try to help New Zealand develop its capabilities and build a stronger friendship, I’m prepared to do.”

Read that again. And if you don't quite believe it, try this:

"...every relationship that is close is one that’s based on trust, and that’s what we have with the people of New Zealand".

The tenor of this visit was America trying to woo New Zealand.

It's phenomenal how far we've come since 1985, when US Secretary of State George Schultz withdrew America's security guarantee from us and when President Ronald Reagan signed a presidential directive punishing us. As of this weekend's announcement, our nuclear ship ban remains but the US has lifted its ban on our ships in its military ports. Our relationship is just about as good as it's ever been, "silly limitations" have been put aside and we still have our nuclear-free principles. The power balance has shifted. It's a remarkable turn-around.

At least it is on one level. What's changed is, most significantly, is 9/11. The US suddenly found it harder to know who to trust and old friends became more important. Relations between nations are ultimately still relations between people. So just as when we suffer tragedy we turn to those who we can count on and who know us best, so nations do the same.

Add to that a Democrat president born in the Pacific and the jigsaw is starting to come together. The final piece – perhaps the largest one today – is the rise of China. China, China, China is core to this desire for "a new era". Suddenly New Zealand has a strategic value to America that means it's in its national interests to overlook old slights.

The final change of note is Afghanistan. And that's where you might argue it hasn't all been America conceding and New Zealand winning. When Corin Dann asked Panetta about the lifting of the ban on our ships, he replied:

"Well, you know, I think the nature of our friendship and partnership is that it is a two-way street.  The fact is that New Zealand has deployed forces to Afghanistan and carried on a very important mission that’s a part of a larger mission there".

So America lifting its ship ban was its quid to our Afghan pro quo. When someone next tries to claim that our engagement in Afghanistan has nothing to do with winning American favour, remember that.

It may be too cynical and simplistic to say our 'win' came at the cost of ten lives in Afghanistan, but it's part of the truth.

What it's proved to the superpower is that it can "trust" us. We may talk of an "independent" foreign policy, which is largely, if not entirely, true. We may have 'cold spats'. But in the long game they know who we are, what we stand for and what they're going to get. And in a post 9/11 world where, as Panetta said...

"this is no longer a world in which you face just one enemy or one superpower.  What we’re facing is an array of threats in which we’re going to have to be flexible and agile and work together in alliances to be about to confront and provide security for the world"

... that's worth a heck of a lot to our pals stateside. Really, for all the diplomatic language Panetta – formerly a congressman from California and the CIA boss, amongst other things – gave a frank interview. Fleshing out what America wants from us, he came back to trust:

"...it’s that relationship of trust that no matter what the crisis is, no matter what the challenge is that we can trust each other to be able to do the right thing, and that, I think, probably that’s the most important thing I get back in this relationship".

Which leaves us with one crucial question. Is being an American ally again really what we want? Because the closer we get, the more baggage we have to carry and the more obligations we face.

Panetta wants us to get even closer. Why? China again. But that could get tricky. According to Audrey Young in the New Zealand Herald this weekend, the Chinese ambassador applauded our independence and "implied" China would expect us to back them in its dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea. Problem is, the US has a treaty requiring it to come to Japan's aide in any conflict.

Panetta's advice? Stay out of it. Which are wise words. On the other hand, he wants more training and inter-operability with New Zealand, "so that you will be in a better position to be able to provide not only for your own security but help us in providing for the security of the Asia-Pacific region".

As news reports have said, he's open to having US troops stationed in New Zealand and working to towards New Zealand's return to ANZUS, "if New Zealand is prepared to make revisions".

And there's the rub. And the risk. We don't want to make revisions or become America's deputy sheriff providing "security" in the region. Our independence has been to hard won, our good relationship with all the powers in the Pacific too important.

The trick now will be hanging onto our 'win', holding the course and not sliding back into unhealthy old relationship habits at the expense of our own independent line.