ANYONE who has ever lived in a family setting recognizes that now and then a minor squabble can momentarily get out of hand, threatening the harmony of the household. Most often, cool heads and a bit of creative diplomacy come to the fore -- and what had seemed an intractable conflict is resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. Cool heads and creative diplomacy are now needed more than ever between two longtime allies and close friends. We are referring to the United States and New Zealand, which, unfortunately, have been moving toward an unnecessary military and political rupture in recent months.
The issue is not inconsequential. As part of a political commitment to the New Zealand public, that nation's ruling Labour Party government is pressing ahead with legislation that could bar visits to New Zealand ports by nuclear-powered or nuclear-equipped ships. The US, as part of its longstanding defense policy, refuses to identify which of its naval vessels is nuclear armed. Consequently, the US has indicated that if the legislation is enacted, Washington will formally end its 35-year-old defense pact with New Zealand. The US and Australia will maintain the ANZUS treaty, however, a defensive alliance that at present includes New Zealand. Australia will also continue to maintain a defensive link with Wellington.
Clearly, compromise should prevail between the United States and New Zealand. The nuclear legislation is now before a parliamentary committee, which has just begun hearings. Both government and opposition figures will testify.
It should be noted that concurrent with the hearings and discussion on the nuclear issue, the parliamentary committee involved has also been looking into the issue of New Zealand's long-term defense needs. Meantime, both Washington and Wellington continue to discuss the nuclear issue via diplomatic channels.
What all this adds up to is a window of opportunity of two or three months during which to forestall a permanent breach. Both nations have legitimate reservations.
As for New Zealand, in addition to strategic questions about being unwittingly pulled into the larger East-West competition between the two dominant nuclear superpowers, there are also concerns about nuclear safety.
In light of the tragedy of the past few days in the Soviet Union, can such matters be totally discounted? New Zealand, which is one of the world's truly lovely geographical settings, can hardly be criticized for wanting to protect its environment.
At the same time, the US, which has far-flung defense ties, is rightly concerned about the negative effect on its other allies that banning nuclear-powered or nuclear-equipped vessels would have. What if other nations enacted such laws, too? The US has sought to modernize its fleet. That means, in part, using nuclear-powered ships. Moreover, US ships need to make port calls. Would the world be safer if US nuclear ships were to be barred throughout the world?
New Zealand and the US have important commercial links. Most important, they are longtime close friends. It should be unthinkable that there could ever be a major breach between them.