On New Zealand's Anti-Nuclear Posturing

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New Zealand’s national identity is very much based on our sense of virtuous purity – and the feeling that we can provide a shining example to an outside world riven by conflict and greedy self interest. If only people were more like us. If only they were more willing to throw themselves open to the free market, and were more willing to let the wealth-generating sectors of their economies stand or fall on their own merits. If only the world was as willing as we are to say ” No” to nuclear weapons.

It is something of a fantasy. The reason we were finally able to get away with saying “No” to nuclear weapons is not because we were a fearless example of moral virtue. It was because we are remote and virtually irrelevant to global conflicts, and because the Americans were satisfied that our continued willingness to provide them with secret intelligence was more important than the public spat over nuclear ship visits. The Waihopai base – and through it, our willingness to spy on our Pacific neighbours – became the virtual trade-off for our nuclear policy. Regardless, our reputation for virtue on nuclear issues has had a workout over the last couple of days. Prime Minister John Key got invited to attend Barack Obama’s conference on nuclear proliferation in Washington, and met with US vice-President Joe Biden. Reportedly, Key responded in these terms :

We are clearly a country that has got a strong history in this area and that could be used longterm actually to sway international opinion.”

Mr Key said the long term ambitions of the Obama Adminstration were “aligned with New Zealand’s position – that is they want to see the world free of nuclear weapons – that has been our position since 1986 and well before that.”

“New Zealand has shown it is possible – sure the situation is different and there are difference circumstances but I do believe we could potentially get to a world that is free of nuclear weapons if you can get the buy-in of a whole lot of other countries.”

On RNZ this morning, Key repeated this theme of New Zealand being an example to the rest of the world on nuclear issues. Why is this, on balance, something of a fantasy? Well, it is a matter of public record that both the US and New Zealand have either voted against or abstained from international moves to make the Middle East a nuclear free zone – in New Zealand’s case, blaming “poor process’ and a ‘ lack of consultation” and other diplomatic weasel words for our reluctance. The underlying reason is that such moves have been seen as a tactic to highlight the fact that Israel has a large nuclear arsenal, and is not a signatory to the non-proliferation process that Key and Barack Obama have been so keen to promote at the Washington conference this week.

In other words, New Zealand has been as willing as anyone else to play politics with the issue of nuclear proliferation and disarmament. When I asked Key at a post Cabinet press conference last year whether his government planned to change the Clark government’s policy of not actively supporting a Middle East nuclear free zone, he replied that if this was an attempt to get him to criticize Israel, he wouldn’t. A virtuous example to the rest of the world? In our dreams.

The same selective morality has long been evident in the way that successive US administrations have handled the issue of nuclear proliferation on the sub-continent. The nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan is dangerous enough in itself. In addition, Pakistan nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan has been the most well-documented case of the export of nuclear materials to rogue forces elsewhere in the world. So if nuclear terrorism is the greatest risk to global security – which Obama maintains it to be – then perhaps the Obama administration could begin by examining the historical American role in creating and fostering the nuclear programmes in both Israel and Pakistan, in both cases outside the non-proliferation process.

The reality of course, is that the Americans routinely pick and choose the countries at whom they wave the non-proliferation stick. The Washington conference, one can safely predict, will end up denouncing Iran’s nuclear aspirations. If New Zealand really wishes to be virtuous and consistent it could point out to the Washington gathering that Iran – even if one puts the very worst interpretation on its nuclear programme – would be doing no more than Israel has been allowed to get away with for decades. Or that Pakistan was enabled to do, without threat or major sanctions being applied.

One can only applaud the steps being taken by the Obama administration to pursue reductions in the size of the US and Russian nuclear arsenals – even if technological advances probably render a smaller arsenal no less potent. The riskier prospect is that the noble cause of non-proliferation may now be invoked to justify military action against Iran. If so, the biggest threat to global security may not be nuclear terrorism – but the selective morality of the non-proliferation club itself. It is a club for which New Zealand seems more than willing to be a happy little cheerleader.


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