Enhancing the alignment with the United States

Murray McCully nuzzled up to the “sisterhood” last week. Not in all ways but in one significant way.

The “sisterhood” is McCully’s undergraduate term of abuse for strong women in and around the government. McCully doesn’t do new-age man well.

Most everything the “sisterhood” thinks or does is on McCully’s hit list.

Except, now, it seems, for the abandonment of the United States alliance. “I am not an advocate of an alliance relationship,” he said last week at the Institute of International Affairs seminar on major foreign policy issues over the next five years.

He has yet to get his party unequivocally to that position. And, as for improving the relationship, he can so far offer no more than Winston Peters can: determination.

McCully essentially argued that his party could do better than Labour because Labour’s leaders are “locked in Vietnam War protest mode” and thus have a residual anti-Americanism.

But Peters is not in that “mode”. He suggested a novel basis for enhancing the relationship (besides joint peacekeeping actions, which were explicitly valued by a visiting general last week): cooperation in his beloved Pacific. But he fluffed that with an off-the-cuff complaint that the United States doesn’t appreciate New Zealand’s security work there.

Later in Parliament Peters got back into line. He ducked Keith Locke’s questions about United States’ treatment of its Guantanamo Bay prisoners. This includes, commanding General Bantz J Craddock has now acknowledged to the New York Times, roughly force feeding immobilised prisoners who have stopped eating. Craddock said this was “not inhumane”.

By doing such things the United States debases our shared values. But swallowing such dead rats (a Helen Clark phrase) goes with the trade of international diplomacy. The government deeply desires a free trade agreement with the United States.

And it deeply desires a trade deal with China, despite China’s determination to reincorporate Taiwan and its continuing widespread human rights abuses.

Which brings us to an oversight, or coyness, by Peters and McCully and, later, Phil Goff at the seminar: none explicitly addressed the strategic implications for this country of rivalry and tension in north Asia.

You and I might think this merits a place among the major foreign policy issues of the next five years — surely as big as the United States.

North Asia was the locus of two major conflicts in the twentieth century involving our troops, North Korea has nuclear capacity and the region’s history is of centuries of endemic suspicion and worse. There is right now tension between Japan and China. Mishap is at least possible.

Notably, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer did canvass north Asia in his dinner address at the trilateral Germany-Australia-New Zealand dialogue on 16 February. While taking a positive view of China, Downer also mused on an alternative possible analogy between China’s economic and strategic resurgence now and newly unified Germany’s rise in the nineteenth century, which presaged half a century of mayhem.

It is perhaps also instructive that Brazil pays great attention to China and Asian stability, as an unheralded heavyweight visitor last week — Marco Aurelia de A Garcia, foreign policy adviser to Brazil’s president (in effect, foreign policy supremo) — made clear in a conversation.

Of course, the government ponders north Asia. Goff told me after the seminar that he will canvass such matters in Washington in April.

The occasion will be what is hoped to be the first of a regular series of get-togethers of United States and New Zealand ministers, officials and business leaders — about 35 a side — on 20-22 April.

The model for this is a long-running annual Australia-United States dialogue, which also provided a partial model for the Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum, due to have its third annual meeting in May.

Jim Bolger and Mike Moore will chair the New Zealand side, former chief trade negotiator Clayton Yeutter and former Senator George Mitchell the United States side. The driver here has been the New Zealand United States Council.

The meeting has a business bias. But it will not get into border and behind-the-border minutiae as has the trans-Tasman one (hence the single Tasman entry channel at Australian airports).

The scan in Washington will be on a wider canvass. It will encompass some of the big security and trade issues of the Asia-Pacific region. Hence Goff’s promise.

The value in this sort of meeting is as second-level diplomacy — pitched between government dealings and people-to-people connections.

It underlines the fact that New Zealanders share many values with United States Americans, even if not with the Administration. And it recognises that, while not allied, we are aligned — by dint of history, heritage and kin.

The challenge for McCully, Peters and Goff is how to enhance that alignment — but not so as to queer our pitch elsewhere in the globe.