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The Right Talk, The Leader's View – 23rd June

The Right Talk, The Leader's view
23 June 2003

Making an impression in Washington

It is clear, after spending a week in Washington, that the Iraqi war represents the high tide of the view that the US should actively protect its interest by using its vastly superior firepower, accuracy and speed of its defence forces. The upside of this is that the new technology and new military doctrine used in the Iraqi war cements in place the US role as a guarantor of stability. People we spoke to in Washington are well aware of the constraints of democratic values and public opinion on how this power should be used. The US is assertively building relationships with a surprisingly wide range of countries, rather than acting unilaterally. In dealing with North Korea, for example, China and the US are working closely together. Europe is lined up with the US in trying to sort out the Israeli-Palestine problem. India and Pakistan are working with the US in Iraq. And in our region there is no doubt that Australia has cemented its place as a reliable and surprisingly influential ally, consulted and listened to. It is clear that New Zealand's national interest lies in a close, reliable relationship with the US, or else we will slide into irrelevance. It is nonsense to allow New Zealand policy to be determined by what suits the French in the UN. We are the only country in our region which still officially believes that we live in what Helen Clark describes as a "benign strategic environment". Everyone is out of step on this but us, apparently.

The Sting lingers

The sting of Helen Clark's comments during and after the Iraq War still lingers in Washington. Most people we met raised these comments with us. What puzzles is the oddball mix of anti-American rhetoric alongside big commitments to US foreign policy. American officials and Congressmen regard the substantial commitments New Zealand has made to Iraq and Afghanistan as commitments to US objectives: regime change, anti-terrorism operations and the introduction of democracy to both countries. Helen Clark appears to be trying to rectify her earlier insults. First was the troop commitment and next on the list is support for US efforts to resolve the North Korean problem, which explains the Prime Minister's trip to Korea shortly. This episode highlights the gap between Australia and New Zealand when it comes to influence in Washington. We are now well behind and I get the impression the Australians would not be unhappy to keep us there. New Zealand's most important relationship is with Australia, but this will become increasingly complicated to manage as the Australians get closer to the US.

Unfortunately, it's now a long shot

New Zealand is lobbying for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US, but it's a long shot. FTAs are a presidential decision and any FTA needs a champion among the dozens of agencies and politicians who have a say. On our visit we didn't find a champion for New Zealand, but we did find real enthusiasm for Australia. The Congress hasn't yet legislated for any FTA and the US Trade Representative's office has a long list, but we aren't on it. It might once have been possible for us to be tagged on the end of the Australian agreement. Unfortunately for our farmers, and for the huge boost it would give the economy, that looks more unlikely now.


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