No Nukes Is Good Nukes? Ten Years After, Kiwis Soften Stance

New Zealand mulls price of its self-imposed ban as desire for 'security' grows.

As if to signal the temperature of the occasion, an Antarctic storm descended on New Zealand as well-wishers gathered here last week to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the country's antinuclear legislation.

Inside a downtown church, a small crowd shivered while a keynote speaker solemnly cut a large birthday cake. For a national party, it was a somber affair.

Gone was much of the public hoopla of a decade ago, when New Zealand passed the world's first statute preventing nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered ships from visiting its ports. Also missing were the obligatory plaudits from government officials whose enthusiasm for the legislation might once have been taken for granted.

New Zealand is learning that leading the world in the ways of peace can be a tough call when the rest of the world isn't convinced.

"We were supposed to be the nation that others would follow, but it didn't turn out like that, did it?" says John Driesenaar, a local cabdriver. "I can't see that the legislation has really got us anywhere."

While other New Zealanders wonder what the policy has actually achieved - other than a certain sense of national self-satisfaction - defense officials here are looking for ways to improve this small South Pacific nation's military relations with the outside world.

Although it soured alliances with many Western nations, the Nuclear-Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act took the heaviest toll on relations between Wellington and Washington, which suspended New Zealand from the Pacific Security Treaty, or the ANZUS Pact, between itself, Australia, and New Zealand.

In addition, the US stopped all joint exercises, reduced personnel exchanges, and cut the flow of intelligence data down to, in the bemused words of one former premier, an airmailed copy of Time each week.

According to a nationwide poll conducted late last month, nearly three-quarters of those under 30 - a category that once constituted the legislation's most popular support - say that effective security arrangements are very important for the country. The figure is up from 56 percent less than a year ago.

In an interview with the Monitor, New Zealand Defense Minister Paul East suggested that such findings meant the time was right to look at new ways of restoring the country's military relationship with the United States. "My view is that the celebrations were in fact more of a commemoration. But I do believe that the extreme antinuclear swing in New Zealand may be starting to return to the center."

While he accepts that there is still not the public support to actually change the legislation, he maintains that "a younger generation of New Zealanders who have an international outlook will start to generate renewed debate on the issue."

While the Asia-Pacific region is militarily quieter than it has been at any time over the past half-century, defense officials fret over the arms buildup in the region and the apparent inability of New Zealand to respond if, say, a trade route in Southeast Asia were to suddenly close as a result of a flare-up in the South China Sea.

Mentioning issues such as troop training, military intelligence, equipment, and security assurances, Mr. East notes that the US remains "at the leading edge of technological warfare." That means "that each year it is becoming more difficult for the New Zealand military to maintain the highest standards possible."

He also fumes over the "lack of debate" generated by a study commissioned by the government into the dangers of nuclear propulsion (as opposed to nuclear arms, which most US warships no longer carry). The report found that its dangers were negligible.

"It's a great pity that New Zealand still lumps together the issues of nuclear propulsion and nuclear weapons. While I and many New Zealanders remain opposed to nuclear weapons, we don't hold the same strength of feeling about nuclear propulsion."

Outside of New Zealand, attitudes are also softening. The US State Department now describes the antinuclear issue as unfinished business between the two countries, while acknowledging that the relationship has otherwise warmed. Two years ago, Prime Minister James Bolger paid an official visit to the White House, the first such visit by a New Zealand leader in 10 years.

More recently, New Zealand participated with America in multilateral exercises such as the peacekeeping forces stationed in Bosnia.

"Younger New Zealanders today obviously feel much closer to America than did the previous generation, which was largely the force behind the current legislation," a hopeful East says. "Despite the obstacle it has put in our relationship, I would say that the two countries are now probably closer than they have ever been."

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