Australia, New Zealand part ways on foreign policy

Seen from a distance, the differences between Australia and its smaller neighbor, New Zealand, appear slight, even microscopic - like their two accents, which outsiders often have trouble differentiating.

That was Peter Saunders's assumption, when he first joined the Center for Independent Studies, a libertarian think tank here. But the British sociologist is surprised by how much of his time and attention is spent on Australia's increasingly testy ties with New Zealand.

"Something is happening here that deserves careful attention," he says with a slight frown.

This past year has seen previously unimaginable cracks opening in what was once a watertight relationship. While the two continue to share much in terms of culture, colonial history, language, and religion, "the way in which the two are thinking about the development of ... foreign policy is very, very different in 2003," says Dr. Saunders. "I mean, just look at the Iraq situation."

Many Australians and New Zealanders have been looking.

This year, more than 1,000 Australian troops were rushed to the Middle East to join the opening coalition assault on Iraq, their presence constituting the third-largest national commitment to the Anglo-American forces gathered behind the US. For the first time in the two countries' history, New Zealand troops were not on hand to fight alongside their cousins in an international conflict.

Instead, the left-leaning government of the smaller of the two nations pinned its hopes on the role of the United Nations and multilateral diplomacy for dealing with the Iraqi regime.

New Zealand's Premier Helen Clark has warned repeatedly of what her administration sees as being the potential for the world to revert to a 19th century "law of the jungle" style of international relations, which could leave small countries like New Zealand at the mercy of the great powers, without the ameliorative influence of institutions like the UN.

Australia, meanwhile, believes its future lies in closer relations with the American superpower. This past April 25 - the date each year when New Zealand and Australia commemorate their war dead - the globetrotting itineraries of leaders from both countries suggests the extent of the divergence.

Ms. Clark accepted an invitation to visit French President Jacques Chirac. New Zealand has broadly supported France's stance against US-led action in Iraq.

That same week, Australian Prime Minister John Howard enjoyed a weekend sleepover at President Bush's Crawford Ranch.

At the "Texas White House," Bush presented Mr. Howard with a pair of cowboy boots inscribed with his initials "J.W.H." and a map of Australia.

The Australian leader also reportedly received what for many years now has eluded New Zealand: the diplomatically coveted assurance of a free-trade deal between the two nations, possibly beginning as early as this year.

New Zealand's chances of securing similar trade concessions are all but dead in the water as a consequence of it's opposition to the Iraq invasion.

"Perhaps things might have not played out this way if the countries had had different governments," says Saunders, who believes that Australia and New Zealand will probably get over their latest tempest.

A jewel in the diplomatic crown for both countries remains the Closer Economic Relations Agreement, signed in 1983. It has eliminated all tariff and nontariff barriers between the two economies and allowed for permanent residents from both to move and work freely without visa restrictions. The deal has been described as one of the most comprehensive free-trade agreements anywhere in the world.

And, of course, they still share a sense of humor. Asked at a press conference earlier this month whether Australia was now locked into a stateside coalition that would attack any renegade country that displeased its American "mates," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer replied, "No sir, we are not."

For the moment at least, a smiling Mr. Downer continued, amid laughter from assembled reporters, it was safe to say "that the Americans are not going to bomb New Zealand."

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