Skip to comments.Man of principle or just a poseur?
Posted on 08/15/2005 3:52:39 PM PDT by naturalman1975
Twenty years ago, David Lange trashed New Zealand's defence relationship with the United States, on the back of his totemic "no nuclear ship visits" policy. It had the effect of shuffling the Kiwis into the neutral corner, and off the winner's podium, just five years before the Western alliance triumphed in the great ideological rivalry of the 20th century.
Yet, in the mythology of his own nation, Lange continues to be celebrated as a brave visionary, rather than as a poseur and dilettante who misread badly the pulse of history.
Following his death at the weekend, there have been many tributes to the former prime minister's role as the leader who carved out for New Zealand a fiercely independent foreign policy stance. New Zealanders continue to congratulate themselves for what they see as a principled stand in renouncing the horrors of nuclear weapons. They see their repudiation of the superpower in the 1980s as an exemplar of how small, relatively powerless nations can exercise moral authority.
To that extent, David Lange recast the identity of his country.
But, following his death, it is worth asking whether, and to what extent, anyone has gained from this dramatic strategic shift. Twenty years on, New Zealand is entering the last weeks of a closely fought general election, where foreign policy is at or near the top of the agenda. There could not be a better time to reflect on the Lange legacy.
On a stopover in Melbourne a few years back, Lange's successor, Helen Clark, reassured me New Zealand was the safest place in the world. She might have been right. After all, the last experience of hostile fire in Auckland was the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by French agents in 1985, out to sabotage protests against nuclear testing in the Pacific. They sank the Greenpeace ship right under the noses of the Kiwis, killing a photographer.
That disgraceful episode came barely six months after Lange had sunk the ANZUS alliance. I have often wondered whether the Kiwis would have suffered that violation of sovereignty if they had remained treaty partners of the US.
Yet this appears not to have perturbed NZ's political elites: or at least not the likes of Matt Robson, for a while a junior foreign minister with big ideas on how to put his country at the forefront of a "new agenda" for global diplomacy. His aim was to assemble a broad, informal alliance of geographically diverse but like-minded nations as a breakaway from the old East-West/North-South divides. He had Sweden in mind as a potential partner, and Ireland, too. It was all very postmodern: a sort of Non-Aligned Movement for Rich Kids.
The point he appeared to be trying to make was that NZ could do quite well under its own steam. It didn't want or need a security treaty with the US as strategic cover. Nor, it was decided, did it want or need fighter aircraft, additional navy frigates, nor the other expensive weapons systems that constitute a modern defence capability. NZ began reconfiguring its forces to focus on peacekeeping, reducing its navy to pretty much a coastguard role.
None of this went down well in Canberra where the disruption to the alliance relationship was being compounded by the suspicion that New Zealand was eager to accept the continuing benefits of defence co-operation (intelligence exchanges, joint exercises, etc) while skimping on its share of the costs of upkeep. Cynics dubbed the Kiwi approach the "continental shelf" strategy - in which NZ enjoys a free ride on its geography, knowing any conceivable threat would necessarily involve Australia also.
From Bob Hawke onwards, NZ's interest in cashing in on the "peace dividend" has become an endless source of irritation to governments in Canberra. In The Hawke Memoirs, the former Labor prime minister wrote of a meeting with Lange in Port Moresby in August, 1984. Hawke said the ANZUS Treaty was vitally important, and told Lange it was nonsense to suggest you could have an alliance relationship while denying access to your ports.
Hawke felt Lange's response lacked all conviction: "In the end, I felt compelled to tell him that it seemed he didn't really believe what he was saying and his government seemed prepared to cop the Left's view in return for a free hand to run economic policy . . . my cynicism bordered on contempt when he subsequently floated around the world as the great man of principle on the nuclear-free issue."
Hawke had his own problems at the time with alliance politics, given Left scaremongering over whether the joint US bases made Australia a nuclear target. His government worked assiduously to win the argument: "Putting the joint facilities on the table as a bargaining chip was never on . . . it was intellectually unacceptable and morally indefensible."
In contrast, it appeared Lange lacked the nerve to confront his own constituency. Instead, he tried to soft-soap the Americans. When his government banned a visit by the non-nuclear armed USS Buchanan in February, 1985, senior US officials lost all trust in him.
Militarily, it was of negligible impact. But the Americans feared the ripple effect of the pebble in the pond.
Across all of western Europe, there were fiery protests over the nuclear arms race. Cold War tensions were high, with the Soviet Union deploying powerful new warheads in Europe and the US countering with a new generation of cruise missiles.
Ronald Reagan had calculated the Americans could out-spend and exhaust the Soviets. Ultimately, his strategy was vindicated. But the build-up put America's network of alliances under severe strain. Into this lumbered David Lange.
Three days after reading the death rites over the alliance, Lange flew to Britain for an Oxford Union debate, to argue nuclear weapons were morally indefensible. The undergraduates loved it, and gave him a standing ovation.
This was the same Oxford Union that, 50 years earlier, had voted down the principle of going to war to defend Europe against Hitler. It seems the irony was lost on the New Zealand prime minister.
So why don't the Aussies just annex NZ? It's not as though they could resist...oh, I know, who wants them?
" New Zealand was the safest place in the world"
Yes, because it's a naive, elitist little island out in the middle of nowhere, it doesn't do anything, except raise sheep, takes no risks and nobody gives a damn about it.
When the Chinese or Islamofascists invade what will they do? How and what will they defend themselves with. It's so very brave of them to declare a no nuke policy. So what?
New Zealand is meaningless.
Very interesting article. Australia under John Howard is a good and principled ally. In that respect the less said about New Zealand....
I shall decline to speak ill of the dead, and so I shall say nothing of Mr. Lange beside the fact that "poseur" describes him perfectly. Anti-Americanism was, for him, the same easy out as it was in the Philippines for a set of like-minded demagogues. It doesn't take any particular courage to demand that a guest leave knowing that the guest will scrupulously honor it. It takes even less integrity to misrepresent that as a mighty victory over a giant.
I was interested in the "takes no risks" part of your post.
I guess that's what New Zealand's SAS are doing fighting alongside US special forces in Afghanistan - taking no risks. And I suppose that is why President George W Bush has given the NZ SAS a unit citation - for taking no risks.
It's easy to take cheap shots at New Zealand - I'm a Kiwi and I get frustrated by the level of doolally, tree-hugging unreality among certain sections of the Labour Party, the Greens and their fellow travellers here. I know the point you're making. I'd just ask you to also consider that our troops are serving alongside yours (I'm assuming you're American) in a theatre of war. And are doing a fine job.
All the best to our boys a long way from home. Kia kaha.
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