Non-nuclear folly

Asuccessful but sad little meeting has just taken place in the Australian capital of Canberra. George Shultz, the American secretary of state, has been talking with Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, a man he knew out of government and whom he likes and admires.

Mr. Hawke is a former labor leader and Mr. Shultz, although he ran the huge Bechtel Corporation and is a product of corporate management, has had a string of good union friends over the years, including George Meany and Lane Kirkland. Perhaps even more important may be the fact that Hawke, although a brassy champion of Australian interests first and foremost, is a sturdy friend of the United States and a realistic supporter of the US-Australian alliance.

Because of all this, the talks between Shultz and Hawke have successfully reaffirmed the ties between the two countries.

The sad part of the meeting concerns the empty chair -- the chair that should have been occupied by New Zealand. That chair was unfilled because New Zealand has in effect turned its back on the ANZUS alliance, which for more than 30 years has bound the three countries together. It has been a comfortable relationship, based largely on the common commitment to democratic values. New Zealanders fought bravely in World War II, and again in Korea, Malaya, and Vietnam. But when Prime Minister David Lange and his Labour Party won power last year, the relationship between New Zealand and the United States took a turn for the worse. Mr. Lange embarked his country on an antinuclear tack. This involved barring from New Zealand ports American naval vessels that are either nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed. Before the Lange government assumed office, such vessels had routinely visited New Zealand.

Hoping for accommodation, the US gave Lange months to work out some reasonable compromise. Finally Washington asked permission for the American destroyer Buchanan to visit New Zealand this year. The Buchanan is not powered by nuclear means, so this posed no problem for the Lange government. But the New Zealanders pressed for an assurance that the American ship carried no nuclear missiles -- an assurance they knew the US could not give. It is inviolable American policy not to confirm or deny which of its warships are nuclear-armed.

The result was that New Zealand barred the Buchanan from visiting, and the US cut off military cooperation in a number of important areas. Though Secretary Shultz has been careful to underline that New Zealand and the US remain friends, the fact seems to be that there is no longer an alliance.

Critics of the New Zealand government have accused it of wanting the American nuclear umbrella, but not wanting port calls by American nuclear warships. This criticism is unfair, for Mr. Lange has made clear his government does not wish to be covered by the nuclear umbrella. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs he says flatly: ``New Zealand does not ask, nor do we expect, to be defended by nuclear weapons.'' Thus, in the face of the Soviet arsenal facing the Western world, New Zealand has opted for a non-nuclear defense.

Curiously, Lange insists that the ANZUS alliance still lives, as far as New Zealand is concerned. Does this mean that, if threatened, New Zealand would accept help from the United States? Does it mean that New Zealand would first check out the nuclear status of any American ship or plane assigned to such military assistance? Does it mean that in time of need only a non-nuclear powered and non-nuclear armed warship could steam to help?

Ironically, the New Zealand decision comes at a time when the world is marking the 40th anniversary of the explosion of the first atomic bomb. Along with that comes a grudging admission by many that 40 years of nuclear deterrence has kept the superpowers from going to war with each other and that the world might have been less safe without it.

There is widespread belief that nuclear weaponry can and should be reduced. There are some who hope that nuclear weapons can be eliminated altogether. The question of questions is how to achieve these goals.

The proponents of unilateral nuclear disarmament have not so far proved convincing. For the West to disarm in the slender hope that the Soviets would not take advantage -- at least politically -- of that weakness would be irresponsible, and perhaps suicidal.

It is down this lonely unilateral road that Mr. Lange has taken his isolated little country.

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