Standing in the Anti-Nuclear Dunce's Corner: Christopher Laidlaw Suggests That New Zealand's Antinuclear Policy Has Become One of Its Defining Characteristics

By Laidlaw, Christopher | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Standing in the Anti-Nuclear Dunce's Corner: Christopher Laidlaw Suggests That New Zealand's Antinuclear Policy Has Become One of Its Defining Characteristics


Laidlaw, Christopher, New Zealand International Review


Since the collapse of the Cold War there has been a huge outpouring of pent-up ethnic or cultural energy. For many it has been pay-back time for ancient grievances. For others it has been the opportunity to get out from under someone else's yoke, either physically, spiritually or simply in terms of 'cultural cringe'.

Culture has always been a human preoccupation and cultures have always clashed. Civilisations have perpetually been at war with each other. But now, in the 21st century, there is a real risk of local conflicts which have little to do with ideology or religion becoming conflagrations in which fundamentalists call the tune. And that instinct derives from what Benjamin Barber described as 'Jihad versus McWorld'. It is a struggle against what they see as American cultural colonisation.

For some, identity is combat. As novelist Michael Dibdin sees it: 'There can be no true friends without true enemies. Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are'. I was reminded of this recently when I read a report about an American army general who announced to any member of the Islamic faith who happened to be listening--because his remarks were transmitted world-wide--that 'my God is bigger than your God'. Now that is a truly arresting proposition. We could have been listening to Osama bin Laden. Instead, we were listening to a Christian who clearly sees the cultural contest at stake here in exactly the same terms as bin Laden.

That is the most worrying feature of contemporary American foreign policy. It seems to have bought into what Samuel Huntington characterised a few years ago as a clash of civilisations. We are assured regularly that this is not the official American view, but the evidence is rather hard to dispel. The message to all is very straightforward. You are either with us or against us in the war against terror. The rhetoric is resounding and it is unmistakeable. It is something which has stirred a curious broth of resistance, even in societies like ours, which have more in common with the American personality than perhaps any others on Earth.

Anti-nuclear pickle

We have, of course, something of a history of having to deal with this 'take it or leave it' message. It was essentially this dictum that got New Zealand into such a pickle over the anti-nuclear policy 20 years ago. I remember the beginning of that episode well because I was working for Prime Minister David Lange at the time. We made the mistake of assuming that the ties of culture and democratic tradition were rather more robust than the strictures of Cold War strategy. They were not. It was basically a case of all the way with Uncle Sam; or you get off the bus.

To be sure, there was a large measure of confusion at the time as to what the options actually were. The circumstances that led to the government refusing access for the USS Buchanan, a theoretically nuclear capable ship, read like the script of a Marx Brothers movie. In the end, the US policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons was the only constant and any hope of a compromise foundered on this particular shoal.

The US Secretary of State, George Shultz, was convinced that David Lange had misled him as to the chances of achieving sufficient con sensus to allow a visit by a suitable US warship. There is some evidence to suggest that Shultz was indulging in wishful thinking. There is, of course, countervailing evidence that we wanted to have our cake and eat it.

Dunce's corner

Whatever the truth of that, the outcome was certainly free of ambiguity. Shultz flamboyantly 'lost' New Zealand's address and we were sent to stand in the dunce's corner of the Western alliance. Even though ANZUS, that elderly arrangement, provided for no more than a requirement to 'consult' in the event of likely hostilities, it was judged that New Zealand had welched on a commitment to follow the leader no matter what, and it was that call to subservience that embedded itself in the Kiwi mind. …

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