US ship visits are about compliance, not maturity

Via Radio NZ:

On Thursday, United States Vice President Joe Biden confirmed during a meeting with Prime Minister John Key in Auckland that America would send a ship to the New Zealand Navy’s 75th anniversary celebrations.

The US has not sent a naval ship since 1983, as it refuses to say whether its ships are nuclear-armed, as required by New Zealand’s nuclear-free law.

Our law is simple enough. You want to send military vessels into our waters, you tell us whether they’re nuclear-armed. You don’t, you can’t. We’re told officials will “assess” whether this one complies with the law. How? Are they wizards?

I’m not surprised our government is keen to get an American warship here, and act like it’s no big deal. John Key has always been clear that he wants to be Obama’s bestie, that New Zealand is part of “the club” and has to pay its dues and look deferential.

But this is a big deal. So I’m more surprised by David Shearer’s comments:

New Zealand and America could now move beyond that chapter in their relationship, with their heads held high.

It would be easy to work out whether the ship complied with the law, he said.

Apparently David Shearer is also a wizard. But on “moving beyond that chapter”, I have an alternative view.

New Zealand’s rejection of nuclear power, and nuclear ship visits, is one of the proudest points of our history. It’s on the great list of Times We Stood Against The World Because We’re Scrappy Little Fighters Who Do What’s Right along with opposing French nuclear tests in the Pacific, not going into Iraq in 2003, and (although this remains a divisive topic, progressives still take pride in) opposing the Springbok Tour.

The images of mass protests on land and water against US vessels entering our ports are a literally iconic part of our progressive heritage.

nuclear ship visits

I realise that’s uncomfortable for people who have a different stance on our place in the world – that we need to prove we’re mature enough to sit at the grown-up table in our suits and ties, and that our great international achievements should be measured by how many fancy titles our retired politicians can win, rather than how many powerful noses we’ve tweaked.

Or as Kerre McIvor put it:

For the young ones, however, those born around the time the no-nukes legislation was passed, they have far more pressing concerns – like finding a job, paying off a student loan, finding an affordable home. This isn’t their issue. But for those of us who lived through that time, the visit by a US Navy ship is a big deal. And a sign that not only have we grown up. But that the US has too.

I was one year old when our government rejected a visit by the USS Buchanan. Three-and-a-half when the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act came into effect. And I can chew gum and think about our country’s role in international politics at the same time.

This ship visit is a power move. It’s a way for the United States to call dibs on our loyalty, and reinforce to us plebs that they’re our benevolent boss. It’s a way to impose a new narrative on our country’s relationship to the US – a willing member of whatever the next coalition will be.

The world hasn’t fundamentally changed since the 70s and 80s. The USA still wants to spread and secure its influence over as much of the world as possible, to build alliances against its ideological foes. Its allies risk becoming targets.

If the United States has “grown up” in terms of foreign policy, it is only by doing exactly the same thing it’s always done, just with bigger weapons and more massive civilian casualties.

I’d rather stay at the kids’ table.


By great luck, I hadn’t written this up before I went to the world premier (fancy!) of The 5th Eye, a new Kiwi documentary on … well, everything. Echelon, drone strikes, our military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the raid on Kim Dotcom’s house, our nuclear-free policy, the “attack” on the Waihopai spy base in 2008, Edward Snowden, and yes. Ship visits.

All these threads are tied together with brilliant clarity and our governments – several of them – don’t come off particularly well. About the only person who manages to make John Key look good is Jonathan Coleman, whose cringing obsequiousness as our Minister of Defence is just humiliating.

If you have a chance to see The 5th Eye at the NZ International Film Festival this month, go. You certainly won’t think positively about a US warship visiting our harbours after you do.

Now if only we had a major Opposition party willing to stand up and say “there is an alternative”.


Here’s a pair of Kiwi tracks to get you in a good mood for Monday:

The decontextualisation of ANZAC Day

Everyone else is giving their reckons on the treatment of ANZAC Day this year, as we commemorate the centenary of the first year of World War I. So here are mine.

Growing up, my main impressions about World War I, and specifically the Gallipoli campaign, were formed by two narratives. The first was the 1981 film about it, starring a baby-faced Mel Gibson. We watched it a few times at school, and every time my impression, and the impression of my classmates, was that young Kiwi and Aussie men charged pointlessly into machine-gun fire while plummy-voiced English generals sat far behind the front lines drinking tea.

The other was the tale of Chunuk Bair. So the legend goes, this strategic point on the map was heroically captured by ANZAC troops and promptly lost by the Brits. It’s not completely accurate – no war story shared on the primary school playground is going to be – but what these two narratives left me with was the firm conviction that Our Boys essentially died for nothing, because Britain told us to.

And that was always the undertone for ANZAC commemorations. We honoured the dead, and the sacrifice they made, but especially because it was futile. Because it represented our reflexive support of our British masters, which we had grown out of like a proper independent nation. We sent young men overseas to die for no damn good reason, to serve in a war built on one assassination and centuries’ worth of interlocking European alliances.

Unlike, say, the American habit of conflating wars with the soldiers who fight in them, who treat every action as heroic and every failure as an insult to the whole nation, demanding vengeance, the ANZAC Days I remember properly recognised the tragedy inherent in any soldiers’ death, without implying that those deaths made the war they happened in righteous. Without making their deaths glorious.

Maybe that was all in my head. But this year, that undertone is definitely gone. In the wall-to-wall coverage of every ceremony and visit and exhibition, I’ve yet to see a single person acknowledge the archaic imperial motives of WWI, that the Gallipoli campaign was a pointless slaughter, or the simple fact that at Gallipoli, we were the invaders and we lost

Hell, I haven’t seen anyone even indicate where Gallipoli is on a map.

So I’m sad as ANZAC Day approaches. We don’t honour the men and women who died in that utterly pointless war, and the especially pointless Gallipoli campaign, by erasing the pointlessness of it all. We shouldn’t remember them because dying in combat (or from sickness or accident in the vicinity of combat) is inherently a glorious thing. We shouldn’t remember them for utterly false propaganda like “they died defending our freedoms” or “for our flag”. Because that’s a well-trodden path that leads to justifying any number of terrible things.

We should remember exactly why Gallipoli was a tragedy, because that’s the only way we can avoid doing it all over again.

Some insist that ANZAC Day shouldn’t be politicised. The thing is, ANZAC Day is inherently political. War is inherently political. The question of following bigger nations into conflicts is inherently political.

Politicians are explicitly using ANZAC Day to support the latest international military action.

In that context the most political thing of all is pretending ANZAC Day isn’t.

QOTD: McFlock on the Iraq deployment

As highlighted by a moderator at The Standard:

So, to recap: John Key is sending soldiers (we can’t identify) into an area (roughly outlined) for a length of time (we’re not clear on) to train soldiers (whose loyalty we don’t know) to fight (alongside allies we don’t trust) an enemy (that is loosely defined) led by a person (whose name he doesn’t remember).

There are plenty of good, operational reasons to not publicize specifics of military deployments. But when it’s that vague? You know the wool’s getting pulled over someone’s eyes, and it’s probably ours.

Key admits he’s using our troops as vote-bait

Yesterday in the House, John Key admitted that it’s “no” coincidence that our deployment to Iraq is scheduled to end at the perfect moment – right before the 2017 election.

Andrew Little : Why has he declared that the deployment to Iraq will end, whether or not its objectives are completed, about 6 months before the next election? Is that just a coincidence?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY : No.

The whole video is worth watching but the supplementary in question begins at 2:23:


As jaded as his opponents might be at this stage about Key’s utter political cynicism, game-playing and complete lack of real regard for our armed forces, this is shocking. Our troops should not be sent in to a chaotic situation where their lives are at risk, put in the situation of upskilling war criminals, and then pulled home – those who aren’t killed or maimed in the process – so John Key can get some sweet Churchillian photo ops on the tarmac.

Rob Salmond also has some thoughts about Key’s uncharacteristically calm demeanour during Question Time over at Polity.

The price of the club?

Back in 2003, John Key had an interesting take on whether it was appropriate to send troops to Iraq: he seemed to think the only factor to consider was whether we got a free trade agreement out of it.

[Content note: graphic images]


From the Hansard:

Where is our name? Missing! It is “MIA” just like it was during the war in Iraq—missing.

This country will pay for that—members need not worry about that. There will be no US free-trade arrangement with New Zealand. One thing we do not have to worry about is container ships going to America, because none will be leaving this country for America; there will be no free-trade arrangement because of the absolute shambles that the Government has made of that position. It does not matter that the Government is offering up bodies and all the rest of it now; that is not helping. The Government has missed the boat with this bill.

Well, now the Prime Minister has his chance, and wouldn’t you know it? He’s “offering up bodies” of Kiwi soldiers and telling us it’s the “price of the club” – or, if that doesn’t float your boat, he’s recycling a different line from 2007 – that it’s about “family.”

Both are shabby excuses for sending our troops into a warzone without a plan.