Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

What America Means for New Zealand: Roger Kerr Reflects on New Zealand's Attitudes towards the United States and Suggests the Value of a Closer Association

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

What America Means for New Zealand: Roger Kerr Reflects on New Zealand's Attitudes towards the United States and Suggests the Value of a Closer Association

Article excerpt

In 1997, two years after he visited New Zealand as a guest of the New Zealand Business Roundtable, the British historian Paul Johnson published his acclaimed book A History of the American People. In its concluding paragraph, Johnson wrote as follows:

   America today, with its 260 million
   people, its splendid cities, its vast
   wealth and its unrivaled power, is
   a human achievement without parallel
   ... [M]any unresolved problems,
   some of daunting size, remain.
   But the Americans ate, above
   all, a problem-solving people ...
   Full of essential goodwill to each
   other and to all ... they will attack
   again and again the ills in their
   society, until they ate overcome or
   at least substantially redressed ...
   The great American republican experiment
   ... is still the first, best
   hope for the human race. (1)

Australians, generally speaking, relate easily to Johnson's view of America. Thus Prime Minister John Howard could say to the US House of Representatives in June last year:

   The bonds between
   Americans and Australians
   are as strong
   as they are genuine;
   and that is, of course,
   because we share so
   many values in common:
   a belief that the
   individual is more important
   than the state;
   a belief that strong
   families are a nation's
   greatest resource; a
   belief that competitive
   capitalism is the real key to national
   wealth; and a belief that decency
   and hard work define a person's
   worth, not class of race or
   social background....

John Howard went on to say:

   there is nothing false or phony or
   lacking in spontaneity in the relationship
   between our two peoples.
   It is not contrived.... We like
   each other, and we do not mind
   saying it....

It is difficult to envisage our Prime Minister using those words, let alone being invited to address a house of Congress. That raises issues that ate worth reflecting upon.

Of course, many ordinary New Zealanders do relate to Americans as easily as Australians. I was struck by the outpouring of sympathy for the victims of 11 September manifested in the bunches of flowers outside the American Embassy. New Zealand and America are both New World societies. New Zealanders visiting the American west cannot fail to be struck by the parallels: the pioneering endeavours, the railroads, the gold rushes, the clashes with indigenous people, the community life of small-town America. To a much greater extent than used to be the case, the United States has become the country of choice for many of our young and most enterprising people. We sometimes remember that, were it not for America, we might well be speaking Japanese today.

Ambivalent attitudes And yet attitudes towards America among the intelligentsia or so-called elites in New Zealand are more ambivalent. It is true that outspoken examples of the 'Great Satan' or the 'America-had-it-coming-to-it' crowd are few and far between. Yet standard-bearers of anti-Americanism such as Noam Chomsky draw big audiences in this country. National Radio cannot get enough of people like Chomsky, John Pilger and Robert Fisk.

We can see these tendencies at the official and political level too. In my ten years in our foreign affairs establishment, I was struck by a kind of culture of 'triangulation'--a habit of wanting to distance New Zealand from the United States, almost regardless of the merits of an issue. I would be the last to advocate unquestioning support for US positions. But I happen to think that more often than not America has been on the right side of the big international issues of the last half century, and that distancing for its own sake is rather odd.

More recently, New Zealand has been drifting apart from the United States (and Australia) across a range of issues. The first big break was, of course, the suspension of the ANZUS relationship in 1985. …

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