Kiwis have turned sour on Americans

New Zealand is a longstanding US ally, but some Americans are finding its shores less than welcoming.

When Christopher Hill, America's overseer of Asian diplomacy, recently talked about the need for a better relationship between the United States and New Zealand, he wasn't telling Gregg Smith anything new.

Mr. Smith first arrived here in 2005 to teach at a high school in Dannevirke, a rural town in this North Island farming region not unlike the central California of his youth. The middle-aged American chuckles ruefully as he remembers early impression of New Zealand as a "perfect cultural match" for him.

That changed after verbal abuse from his students about his nationality got so bad that he filed a lawsuit with the country's Human Rights Commission. Smith says he is seeking recognition that the anti-American vitriol has gotten too personal.

Opinions of America have tumbled here – to 29 percent of Kiwis feeling positive about the US in 2004, from 54 percent in 2001. In some ways, the trend mirrors results elsewhere. A new 15-nation poll from the Pew Research Center found double-digit declines in countries as diverse as Russia, India, and Turkey – drops that seem tied to growing pessimism about the Iraq war. (Pakistan – where the US offered aid after last year's earthquake – and China showed slight gains over last year.)

Hostility toward Americans has gotten personal

But the depths of dislike expressed in polling here, as well as accounts of personal hostility, is surprising from a people who have fought alongside the US in numerous wars, including Afghanistan, and share cultural values.

"The nastiness of some of the things I've heard from the kids here has to be heard to be believed," Smith says.

His experiences are echoed by some high-profile Americans. Douglas Sparks, who came to New Zealand to oversee the Anglican Church's Wellington Cathedral, suddenly packed his bags two years ago and vowed to never bring his family back. Mr. Sparks said he was the target of anti-US graffiti and his children were taunted by classmates who said they hoped US soldiers in Iraq would be killed.

And the last US ambassador to New Zealand, Charles Swindells, went out with a bang in mid-2005. In his farewell speech, he browbeat some listeners for indulging in "empty, inaccurate criticism of US ideals or actions that offers no constructive alternatives and gives no credit where credit is due."

For Smith, the growing coolness in a land where the US used to fit as comfortably as a hamburger in a bun is puzzling. "It can't be just personal – it has to come from a wider concept about what America is and isn't. But how did that happen?"

Decades-old disagreement festers

Aside from the global unpopularity of the Iraq war, New Zealand still smarts from a decades-old disagreement.

Nearly 20 years ago, New Zealand enacted the world's first statute preventing nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered ships from visiting its shores. The measure, which led to New Zealand's suspension from the ANZUS tripartite defense alliance with Australia, proved popular at home, but it continues to cast a pall on ties with the US.

The relationship has its strengths, however. Both nations are ardent promoters of free trade, and bilateral trade totals $5 billion. Wellington sent aid to Washington after Hurricane Katrina. The countries share a dominant language and religion, and US pop culture plays well in New Zealand.

Some say that common ground may contribute to anti-Americanism here. "As part of young New Zealand's ongoing quest for a national identity, some people find it useful to define themselves against America," says one senior US official.

New Zealand's former ambassador to the UN in the early 1990s, Terence O'Brien, believes his country, like others, is becoming more America-conscious, rather than anti-American. He says that as the US has cut a more muscular presence in the world since 9/11, more criticism of its actions is to be expected.

"New Zealand isn't any different in that regard," he says. "Why should it be? It's not as if the changes that have taken place since I lived there have been for the better."

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