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Military Exercise + Spurious Trade Relationship


About Diplomatic and Military Exercise—and its spurious relationship to Trade

By Paul G. Buchanan

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Election year politics has thrown new light on US-New Zealand relations. Outgoing US ambassador Charles Swindell reiterated his concerns that recent years have seen a decline in the relationship, officially noted in the US shift from viewing New Zealand as an ally to (rather) that of “close friend,” and felt practically in the termination of the ANZUS military alliance.

Precipitated by the Lange government’s declaration of nuclear-free status and its refusal to accept port calls by US vessels while these adhered to a “neither confirm or deny” policy regarding the presence of radioactive material on-board, differences over nuclear issues eventually translated into the US canceling military agreements with New Zealand (specifically the arrangements held under the International Military Exchange and Training, or IMET, programme).

Refusal to permit the American destroyer USS Buchanan berthing facilities in 1985 proved to be the test of Lange’s resolve on the matter, and with the public offering demonstrable support, the non-nuclear policy stood firm.

That led to the current impasse and foreign policy shuttlecocking between the major New Zealand political parties (“shuttlecocking” defined as rhetorical batting back and forth of sensitive political issues between political parties until one side makes a public mistake with electoral implications).

David Lange’s death in August added backdrop to Labour-National sniping about US influence on and in New Zealand. His policy forged the tool that Labour uses to pare down National’s pro-American stance, because it is the foundation not only of a diplomatic row, but a source of political identity as well. That is because the non-nuclear position is to New Zealand what the right to bear arms is to Americans: most want it, even if just as a matter of principle and even though keeping it may have an obvious downside.

Raising the issue of the US “neither confirm or deny policy” involves nuclear weapons but brings on its coattails the issue of nuclear energy, first on warships then on New Zealand soil.

That is a political minefield where shuttlecocking seeks its advantage. The only political party that wants the non-nuclear policy reversed is ACT, which might help explain why it is rapidly fading into political oblivion. The other party with adamant views on nuclear issues, the Greens, have a universal preference for hemp rather than U232 or its derivatives.

Interestingly, “neither confirm or deny” is the also the official New Zealand government response to queries about sensitive security matters, including all issues of intelligence and special operations. Although sensible in principle, this leads to abuse of the disclaimer by decision-makers on both sides of this particular diplomatic row, including the major parties alternating power in each state.

Post 9/11 US foreign policy (which began with demands for complete New Zealand adherence to the global anti-terrorist campaign) sharpened Labour’s anti-bullying instrument by contrasting it to the results-oriented, economic-driven approach of the Clinton (and Clark) administration. New Zealand’s disproportionate presence on the world diplomatic stage (due to its heavy presence in non-proliferation, peace-keeping and relief agencies), added to its independent foreign policy, make it difficult for politicians to retreat from the country’s principled non-nuclear stance. To do so, and to be seen as succumbing to US pressure, would reduce New Zealand’s international diplomatic stature.

By raising the issue in the context of global economic integration, the US implies that there is a tight coupling of economic and security concerns, to the detriment of New Zealand. It does so strictly as a matter of leverage on its smaller partner. Some in New Zealand believe that the country can never aspire to a free trade agreement with the US so long as the non-nuclear stance is not modified (the US has to do nothing). For others, the intrusion of security concerns on an otherwise excellent economic relationship between the two states is just plain stupid. Worse yet, even raising the point as a political initiative provides an easy soft target for those practiced in election year infighting, particularly when these oversee a diplomatic corps that contains adherents to a non-nuclear and independent foreign policy.

The more pointed question is a practical one: does the absence of formal military agreement mean that there is no US-New Zealand security engagement? The reason the question matters is that whereas diplomatic rows are often symbolic exercises in pursuit of a substantive issue, the military-security realm is a very pragmatic business cloaked in moral-ethical disguise. In this enterprise hard knocks substitute for etiquette, and appearances do not matter except as a deception.

New Zealand has a history of providing professional military service to colonial and post-colonial allies. It has a strong record in multi-national peacekeeping roles. It has a special operations branch that is comparable, although smaller and less equipped, to those of larger nations. It offers territory for foreign intelligence gathering and it shares, albeit as a consumer rather than as a provider, Western intelligence streams. It is a reliable security partner when engaged, and it is, for all of its recent Asian orientation in trade, “of the West” in geopolitical terms. With exception of China, most of New Zealand’s regional trading partners are military allies of the US. Joint military exercises with these trading partners not only is seen to serve as a reaffirmation of the bilateral relationship, but also as a backdoor through which to engage third country security forces in light of New Zealand’s broader strategic objectives.

For its part the US is a unipolar superpower with global strategic interests. But there are limits to its ability to project force. Although militarily equal to none, its reach is not comprehensive to the point of self-guaranteeing absolute security for its citizens at home and abroad, especially in a world where adversaries share security-related technology. Instead, it relies on a broad network of military-security alliances and joint practical exercises to serve as force multipliers as well as diplomatic networking opportunities. Good will and economic benefits are the by-products of this interaction. Smaller partners receive training, cultural influence and modern military equipment while the US pushes its defensive perimeter far off shore by integrating its forces with those of regional allies.

The need to engage in regular military exercises and maintain joint deployments is made all the more important in a threat environment populated by armed irregular non-state actors as well as conventional nation-state militaries, given their ability to access modern security-related technologies and the “grey area” networking between them. In such a context local knowledge is as important as pure technological acumen, so use of allied foreign security forces by the US in order to better read the local geopolitical terrain is considered a major requirement for success in the global war on terrorism. This has led to US out-sourcing local security to a number of regional deputies (Australia wearing the nearest badge), which requires regular exercising to ensure ideological and technical compliance with the military requirements of the hybrid (mixing conventional and unconventional tactics) approach to the current strategic context. In turn, the US’s regional deputies round up a local posse for inclusion in joint exercises for their own geo-strategic reasons, and because it deepens the commitment and physical ability of smaller partners to carry out the common goal. These exercises may or may not be governed by formal treaty.

Thus, be it during the Cold War, after the Cold War or post 9/11, the US and New Zealand have found ways to get around the non-nuclear diplomatic row. The intelligence side of things is cloaked in the secrecy befitting the covert world, but in truth New Zealand has an extremely limited overseas collection capability and is therefore extremely reliant on information provided by intelligence patrons—such as the US, even if via Australia. The quid pro quo involves New Zealand passing along local or regional intelligence to these patrons, if nothing else as corroboration of independently obtained data. The long-term presence of US-operated electronic eavesdropping posts in New Zealand underscores the continuity of the intelligence-sharing relationship in spite of the disagreement over nuclear issues.

Because of their overt nature, New Zealand-US military relations are subject to the symbolic vanities of public diplomacy and the vagaries of electoral cycles (at least in New Zealand). Thus, although no IMET agreements are in force and US warship port visits in New Zealand cannot occur without dropping the “neither confirm or deny” policy, there are numerous practical areas of mutual interest where US and Kiwi armed forces serve together. These include training exercises and operational deployments worldwide, and extend to the US retaining use of a naval deep-water port and airfield on the South Island that ostensibly is used for staging Antarctic research and re-supply.

New Zealand SAS troops serve alongside US special operators in Afghanistan and elsewhere (often under the cover of Australian or British command). New Zealand military personnel fulfill attaché, liaison and observer roles in US territory, countries of mutual interest or as part of UN or regional multinational mandates. When the occasion arises (particularly in small unit maneuvers), US and New Zealand armed forces exercise together, either bilaterally or in conjunction with other nations’ armed forces. The bottom line is that symbolic exercises such as the ‘showing the flag” that goes on during port calls are banned by the non-nuclear policy standoff, but exercises with practical benefit given extant threat conditions are routinely waived from the restriction.

In fact, as a courtesy between friends waivers are granted virtually anytime New Zealand and US forces engage in joint exercises of any nature offshore, so long as they do not otherwise fall under an IMET protocols or involve an upgraded US military presence in New Zealand. All of this is done without public fanfare given tacit understanding between the US and New Zealand not to allow diplomatic license and domestic politics interfere with the pragmatic military realities at hand. Thus recent maritime interdiction exercises involving US and New Zealand forces under Singaporean command were granted a waiver because they are designed to counter the threat of international piracy being used as a sea conduit for weapons of mass destruction. The ability to do so has benefits that transcend the issue of WMD, particularly for a country like New Zealand that is so heavily dependent on sea lines of communication for vital resources and overall prosperity.

In the end, the debate about New Zealand’s non-nuclear stance is more a symbolic exercise than a practical dispute. It is a diplomatic row that impinges on but does not hinder the business of maintaining good military relations. Although low-key and played down, the relationship remains ongoing.

Even so, political posturing continues to occur on the connection between the New Zealand-US security relationship and other matters. The US government and its New Zealand champions would like people to believe that trade and security are closely interrelated, and that only improvements in the latter can advance the former. This may be mistaken for two reasons. New Zealand’s international reputation is in large part derived from its principled non-nuclear stance and independent foreign policy, which allows it to diplomatically punch above its weigh on a variety of foreign policy issues. More pointedly, New Zealand, although likable as a tourist and filmmaking destination, is simply too small and far away to matter much in the US policy spectrum.

The issue is simple: Given that the New Zealand GNP is equivalent to that of the smallest US states, and that unlike the citizens of those states New Zealand cannot vote or put money into the election campaigns of US politicians in amounts equivalent to local political action committees and lobbying groups, coupled with the fact that its exports often directly compete with (subsidized) commodity production in states that are critical for the outcome of US national elections, the chances that it is going to be moved to the head of the cue of free trade supplicants appears improbable regardless of whether it modifies its non-nuclear stance to accommodate the US.

After all, even if it did, and even if it had been a member of the “Coalition of the Willing,” is it realistic to expect that New Zealand would jump ahead of Italy, Spain, Portugal or Poland in achieving a free trade deal? What impact on the US volume of trade would that have compared to countries with multiple times the productive output? Moreover, Chile and Mexico, which do have free trade agreements with the US, were members of the UN Security Council that refused to accept US claims that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction ready for use. In spite of much American bluster about losing free trade status should they vote against intervention in Iraq, Chilean and Mexican opposition to the war—which remains as strong as that of New Zealand—did not interfere with the business of doing business with the US under the aegis of a free trade deal.

There may come a day when the non-nuclear row is consigned to the history books by formal agreement. In the meantime practical matters of mutual security import are divorced from the diplomatic postures of each country so as to accommodate the need for force standardization, complementarities and integration. Trade issues simply do not factor into the rationales for engaging in ongoing security interaction because in the end, on matters of international security the US needs friends like New Zealand as much as New Zealand needs patrons like the US. For its part, New Zealand cannot afford to be seen as buckling to US pressure on the non-nuclear stance because to do so would diminish its standing in the international diplomatic community. In the larger scheme of things, maintaining its international reputation is more important for New Zealand than securing an elusive free trade deal with the US, particularly given the plethora of other potential trading partners around the world.

Politicians may find election ammunition in trumpeting the non-nuclear stance, but the fact is that the exercise has more diplomatic than military implications. So long as substance matters more than symbolism, the quiet friendship between the two countries on security issues will continue unimpeded by the posturing about trade and nukes.

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Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.

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