The non-nuclear position was consistently supported by New Zealanders and became part of New Zealand’s international personality. By the mid-1990s any political party that wanted to govern in New Zealand needed to retain the nuclear-free legislation. As the repeal of this legislation was the price the US wanted paid to restore ‘normal’ defence relations, there was a stalemate between the two countries. As successive US administrations recognised that neither National- nor Labour-led governments would change this policy, there were efforts to find ways around the problem.
Partners, if not allies
Throughout the 1990s New Zealand reminded the US that despite this obstacle, New Zealand was a reliable member of the international community, and could be a valued partner if not a formal ally. New Zealand worked with the US in:
- Somalia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and naval interception missions in the Persian Gulf
- strongly supporting the international counter-terrorist response following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US
- an early and sustained contribution to the Afghanistan conflict, where the efforts of New Zealand’s Provincial Reconstruction Team, and its Special Forces, were appreciated by the US.
In September 1999 Bill Clinton became the second US president in office to visit New Zealand, when he attended the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Auckland. Following the forum he played golf near Queenstown and declared New Zealand ‘an enchanted land … a place every child dreams of finding, but most had given up before they reached New Zealand.’1
Despite improving relations at a government level, there were still some critics of New Zealand's relationship with the United States.
Wellington Declaration 2010
By the 2010s New Zealand’s status was somewhere between friend and ally, as a close security partner of the United States. Cooperation between the two countries extended across a broad range of government agencies. In 2010 John Key was invited to President Barack Obama’s nuclear security summit in Washington. This was taken by many New Zealanders as a sign that the US had come closer to New Zealand’s position on nuclear issues – Obama had spoken of his hopes for a world eventually free of nuclear weapons. Later that year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed the Wellington Declaration, which sought an enhancement of cooperation between the two countries, including in the South Pacific region. It did not, however, reintroduce an alliance obligation for either side. In 2011 Prime Minister John Key paid a successful formal visit to President Obama. Under the 2012 Washington Declaration, New Zealand warships were once again able to visit US bases.
Relations with China
The improvement in the US–New Zealand security relationship came when both countries were navigating a new balance of power in the Asia–Pacific region, whose main characteristic was a rising China. New Zealand had been more comfortable than the US with this changing regional picture, but wanted the US to play an active and stabilising role in the region as the power balance changed. New Zealand also wanted to see the US engaged in the closer integration which was happening between Asia’s economies. Just as New Zealand and the US became formal allies soon after China’s communist revolution, they improved their security relationship at a time when China’s rise was once again the number-one story in the Asia–Pacific region.
The election of President Donald Trump in 2016 and the installation of a Labour-led government headed by Jacinda Ardern in 2017 imposed some strains on the relationship between the two countries. The US turn away from multilateralism and its trade dispute with China threatened core New Zealand interests.