Ask New Zealanders what it is that makes their country unique
among Western nations, and those here in the capital will sometimes
point to the array of ships berthed along the shoreline of this
None of these military boats, they often say with a note of
pride, are nuclear-armed or -powered, not since 1987, when the New
Zealand government banned nuclear vessels from entering its
Now, locals can point to the skyways, too, which the government
this week effectively declared a military-free zone.
Prime Minister Helen Clark announced that her center-left
government will sell its air force combat jets, cut back Navy
funding, and buy new equipment to enable its Army to play a more
prominent role in international peacekeeping.
By selling its 17 A4 Skyhawk combat jets and 17 training jets,
the government also will eliminate as many as 700 jobs.
The changes are the most significant shift in defense strategy
since passage of the antinuclear legislation, which soured
relations with many of New Zealand's traditional allies,
particularly its much larger neighbor, Australia, and the United
The decision - taken, says Ms. Clark, because the country faces
no obvious external threat and is situated in what she describes as
being an "incredibly benign" region - ends the air-to-ground strike
capability that successive administrations have jealously maintained
since World War II.
Although New Zealand has faced the possibility of armed invasion
just once in the past 60 years - by Japan in the early 1940s - its
armed forces have played a role in all of the major conflicts
during the same time to have involved American and Australian
Clark's government touts the latest move as a way for New Zealand
to forge more of an independent regional identity while remaining
more fully involved in any future defense operations abroad in
which New Zealand is asked to serve.
The country's premier says the military now will be able to
concentrate on what it does best, which lately has been training
and equipping its forces to take part in United Nations-led
peacekeeping operations. It most recently deployed 600 troops to
help quell the unrest in the wake of the 1999 independence vote in
East Timor. At the same time, the country stands to save nearly
NZ$1 billion (US$424 million) over the next decade from this week's
But the move isn't going down well with some. "It's a policy of
isolationism," says Gerald Hensley, a former secretary of defense.
"I realize that's a loaded term, but I'm not sure there's a better
New Zealand, he says, "no longer wants to tangle with the outside
world ... except in limited, peacekeeping roles. But what will New
Zealand do on any future occasion when it has to face serious,
immediate trouble in the region? …