Towards a Nuclear Weapons Free World? New Zealand and the Quest for Global Nuclear Disarmament

By Ayson, Robert | International Journal, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Towards a Nuclear Weapons Free World? New Zealand and the Quest for Global Nuclear Disarmament


Ayson, Robert, International Journal


NEW ZEALAND'S VOCAL SUPPORT for global nuclear disarmament predates the end of the cold war by several years. During the 1980s, for example, anti-nuclear sentiment played a prominent role both in New Zealand's domestic politics and in shaping the country's foreign and defence policies. More recently, New Zealand has been an enthusiastic member of the New Agenda Coalition, a small group of member states of the United Nations dedicated to raising the profile of nuclear disarmament.(1) Wellington's anti-nuclear credentials were confirmed at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in New York, 24 April-19 May 2000, when it was appointed to chair a subsidiary body responsible for securing agreement on the disarmament obligations of the major nuclear weapons states.

With the help of that subsidiary body, the 2000 review conference elicited a major and 'unequivocal commitment' from the five nuclear weapons states (the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China) to accomplish complete nuclear disarmament. At the very least this will provide a standard against which the five can be held to account in future negotiations at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) and elsewhere. At the conclusion of the conference, New Zealand's minister for disarmament and arms control, Matt Robson, observed that 'there is a new mood of optimism'(2) about the future prospects for disarmament.

However, the pledge made by the nuclear weapons states was not accompanied by an explicit timetable for elimination, and it is hard to deny that the possession of nuclear weapons remains an attractive proposition for a number of states. Moreover, bargaining between the United States and Russia over Washington's plans for a limited national missile defence (NMD) system at times overshadowed the work of the NPT conference. The strains placed on the arms control and disarmament agenda by this issue alone are enough to raise questions about the future prospects for nuclear disarmament and to make the task confronting New Zealand and other pro-disarmament countries all the more daunting.

This article assesses the opportunities and challenges facing New Zealand as a strong advocate of a nuclear weapons free world. An overview of the place of nuclear weapons issues in New Zealand's approach to world affairs during the last decade of the cold war and the first decade of the post-cold war era sets the stage. In accounting for New Zealand's commitment to nuclear disarmament reference will be made to both domestic and international political influences and the relationship between the two. This in turn is used to analyse the prospects in the early twenty-first century for significant global movement towards the abolitionist goals held by New Zealand.

NEW ZEALAND'S NUCLEAR-FREE POLICIES & THE 'SECOND' COLD WAR

In the early 1970s East-West relations prospered under detente, and the first of two treaties arising out of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) was signed. By the end of the same decade political and military relations between Moscow and Washington had taken a turn for the worse. During this 'second' cold war, ushered in by the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Ronald Reagan's victory in the 1980 American presidential elections, international concerns about the risks of a superpower nuclear confrontation were once more on the rise.(3)

The decision by member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to install intermediate range nuclear forces in Europe in response to a perceived threat from such Soviet systems as SS20 missiles was particularly significant. This attempt to bring peace through nuclear strength helped stimulate a wave of anti-nuclear protests in the northern hemisphere that included the Greenham Common demonstrations in England(4) and the nuclear freeze campaign in the United States.(5)

Such international concern was a further stimulus to existing anti-nuclear sentiment in New Zealand, which had for several years focused on French nuclear testing in the South Pacific(6) and on port visits by American naval vessels that were nuclear powered and/or seen as capable of carrying nuclear weapons. …

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