Allies are atching the USGuest Column/Randy Hertzman
Since the beginning of February, a major issue has been haunting US foreign policy makers: our reaction to New Zealand's position banning port calls by nuclear armed or propelled ships.
The ramifications are far deeper than a military realignment in the Pacific; portents of a major shift in international attitudes toward military power are rising above the superpower horizon. Will the United States be ready for radically new attitudes on the part of our allies regarding world security?
The events that are bringing forth such a frightened reaction from Washington are at first sight not very earthshaking.
In July of 1984, Prime Minister David Lange's Labor party was swept into power in New Zealand on a platform promising a nuclear-free New Zealand. The United States government received private reassurances from Labor Party officials, however, that New Zealand would not look too closely at any US ship that paid a port call.
Washington waited six months, until January of 1985, to request permission for a port call by a US Navy ship. The visit was viewed as a test case by Washington; the Navy deliberately assigned the USS Buchanan, a conventionally-powered destroyer, to the mission.
The Buchanan was, however, nuclear-capable. In keeping with standard US policy, the State Department declined to disclose whether the ship was in fact armed with nuclear weapons.
On February 1, New Zealand denied the Buchanan permission to visit. Reagan administration officials immediately cancelled the "Sea Eagle" naval exercises, one of a series (twenty-two in 1985) of joint Australian-New Zealand-United States naval exercise planned by the Pacific Council, set up by the ANZUS treaty of 1951.
Australian Prime Minister Robert Hawke, in Washington by coincidence, agreed to hold joint US-Australian naval exercises as a substitute for the cancelled "Sea Eagle," but stated that his government would retain cordial relationships and a military alliance with New Zealand, the latter's anti-nuclear policy notwithstanding.
Washington took New Zealand's action very seriously. Congress discussed political or economic sanctions; the State Department considered expelling New Zealand from the ANZUS alliance. It announced after some consideration that it would defer such a drastic move until the Pacific Council's annual meeting in Canberra, Australia in July.
New Zealand continuously reiterated its earnest desire to maintain friendly relationships, economically, politically, and militarily. Two weeks ago, however, Washington categorically rejected the Wellington government's proposed compromise, in which Lange would decide in each case whether a US ship carried nuclear arms, without asking the US Navy. Last Saturday, Washington gave the ultimatum to New Zealand: accept nuclear weapons or be expelled from ANZUS.
New Zealand refused to budge. "If the ANZUS treaty requires us to accept nuclear weapons, then it is the treaty which is the obstacle to the maintenance of good relations between New Zealand and the United States," Lange explained in a speech in Christchurch.
What so frightens Washington that it is willing to alienate one of the United States' closest and most loyal friends? Militarily, New Zealand would be hurt much more than the United States by the breaking of ANZUS. The New Zealand armed forces, in their entirety, are composed of 12,700 men, 4 frigates, 6 patrol boats, and seven Navy helicopters, little augmenting the US forces in the Pacific.
New Zealand is not important to the United States as a military base; Australia and our Pacific possessions are quite sufficient. Furthermore, the Soviet Union has shown little interest in the South Pacific.
The rationale behind the Administration's brutal reaction to this small sign of independent-mindedness from New Zealand becomes clearer when one considers the political repercussions of New Zealand's actions.
Washington has been increasingly worried about the anti-nuclear, anti-US public opinion growing in Western Europe. If other nations were to follow New Zealand's precedent, US military interests could be seriously harmed.
For example, Japan has had a long-standing policy prohibiting nuclear weapons in its territory. In the past, it has never questioned whether US ships carried nuclear weapons. The Administration is greatly worried that Japan might begin enforcement of this policy if New Zealand succeeds in thwarting the desires of the US.
More importantly, anti-nuclear movements in Western European countries such as Belgium, West Germany, and Great Britain have been gaining power and recognition. With the West German government seriously weakened by the repercussions from the recent wave of defections to East Germany, the West German Social Democratic party, much more amenable than the current Bonn government to anti-nuclear public protest, might well gain power. The US defense policy is entirely dependent on a cooperative West Germany.
The Administration feels, perhaps justly, that the New Zealand movement could be the start of a wave of betrayals which could leave the United States isolated on the world scene. This explains the harsh attempts to crush the New Zealand stance before other allies follow New Zealand's example.
Unfortunately for the current state of affairs, the United States has few options, short of an invasion of New Zealand, which will reverse that island's position. New Zealand has already stated that the breaking of ANZUS will not sway its position.
The effects of economic sanctions, such as ending preferential treatment of lamb and wool imports from New Zealand, or releasing onto the world market government surpluses of dairy products to compete with New Zealand's principal exports, are uncertain at best. There is, likely, no action that will cause New Zealand to reverse its position.
So what can the United States do to prevent the serious weakening of its defense that would follow the "defection" of more countries to the peaceniks? The answer: absolutely nothing. We must, instead, address the cause of the peace movement, restructuring our foreign policy so that we no longer appear so threatening to our allies.
Specifically, we must begin to cooperate with our allies in international policy, instead of dominating them. We must also begin to negotiate with the Soviet Union in good faith, as we promised in the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Only in such a manner can we regain the trust of our allies and prevent the crumbling of our defense establishment.
Last Saturday the Soviets issued a proposal offering nuclear arms cuts of up to 50 percent. This provides a heaven-sent opportunity to begin a shift of attitude towards our allies. The United States's botching of this chance would greatly strain our credibilty with our allies, and further hasten the day when New Zealand's rejection of United States military policy is propagated across the capitals of Europe.
More than weapons cuts, then, is riding on the United States' reaction to the Soviet initiative. The governments and peoples of Western Europe are watching us very closely; we disappoint them at our own peril.