Review essay: How Canada Could Learn from New Zealand in Taking a Stand on Nuclear Weapons

Discussed in this article: Nuclear Free -- The New Zealand Way, by David Lange, Penguin Books, 1990.

By Joanna Santa Barbara | 2008-04-01 12:00:00

The most effective role for Canada, or any other non-nuclear weapons state, to play in the abolition of nuclear weapons is to state clearly its disapproval of them, to disentangle itself from any supportive or permissive involvement with them and to be a strong and creative advocate for nuclear abolition in international assemblies. Public opinion polls have given Canadian governments clear mandates for such action. What holds Canada back? The answer is known to everyone: fear of offending the Bush administration and of being subject to punitive action in trade and other arenas needing cooperation from the most militarily powerful nation.

One small nation took a clear stand and acted to disentangle itself 20 years ago, and it lived to tell the tale. What can we learn from New Zealand?

A Brave Prime Minister

An astounding amount of pressure was applied to New Zealand to change its policy, and it was more than equalled by the staunchness of popular opinion on the issue and by a prime minister who couldn't be intimidated. As then-Prime Minister David Lange described in his 1990 book Nuclear Free, New Zealand's nuclear policy evolved as a "small-scale protest [which] turned into a popular movement and then to political action."

His account can offer Canadians lessons that remain useful today. In the 1960s there was a small movement against nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific. Both France and the US were conducting underground tests there.

In 1973, the newly-elected Labour government sent two of its frigates to the testing zone to signal its disapproval. This same Labour government set out to create a nuclear-free zone in the South Pacific. In 1976 there was a famous confrontation with a nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier with a myriad of small craft in Auckland Harbour. With every further US warship visit, the size of the protests grew throughout the country.

By the early 1980s the Nuclear-Free Cities movement was growing in New Zealand, with large numbers of municipalities joining. As Lange became an opposition member of parliament and later leader of the Labour Party, he became convinced of the danger of nuclear deterrence. At this time, in 1984, 58 per cent of New Zealanders opposed port visits of vessels that could be bearing nuclear weapons or were propelled by nuclear power, and 66 per cent lived in nuclear-free municipalities. Lange took it for granted that when his party came again to power, they would move to make New Zealand nuclear-weapons free, an issue mainly affecting port visits.

"There might be little that a small country could do to influence the thinking of the nuclear powers but New Zealand did not have to surrender to their practices," wrote Lange. He was certain that adoption of such a policy was possible within the terms of the ANZUS Treaty, a defence arrangement between Australia, New Zealand and the US and that the US would not want to be seen bullying a small country. What ensued showed that his assumption was wrong and revealed a serious contempt for democratic process by the US Reagan administration. During the election campaign, then Assistant Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz made a speech saying that the ANZUS treaty would be at risk if Labour were to come to power and enact a nuclear-free New Zealand policy. After the Labour victory, the US objected to New Zealand's choice of ambassador to the US as being too closely identified with the nuclear-free policy. Lange traveled to the US to put his government's argument clearly:

"(W)e did not wish to be under the American nuclear umbrella. We did not wish to be defended by nuclear weapons. To make this plain to all the world, we would not have nuclear weapons in our ports. This was a proper form of arms limitation, but it was not an abandonment of our responsibilities as an ally. It was still perfectly possible for New Zealand and the United States to cooperate militarily."

George Shultz, then Secretary of State, refused to accept these arguments (the same George Shultz who now argues eloquently for abolition of nuclear weapons). The message from the US embassy was that the policy was a

"breach in the Western solidarity on which the fate of the world rested... a signal to the Russians that the West's unity of purpose was splintering...its commitment to nuclear deterrence faltering...they (the Russians) would never be forced into arms reductions."

Examples To Others

US diplomats were very worried about the example to others, especially the Japanese. Japan was constitutionally nuclear-free, but allowed the porting of warships from nuclear-weapons states. They were also very concerned that Australia, the Philippines, Sweden, Denmark would follow New Zealand's anti-nuclear law and ban ship visits as well.

"Against this background, their message to me was pointed. New Zealand couldn't be allowed to get away with it. If we did, other countries might start to think they could get away with it too...I was singlehandedly undermining Western resistance to the evil empire."

The US sent intelligence officers to give Lange briefings, for his ears only, on the Soviet threat. Lange was not impressed. When Lange spoke to US politicians and diplomats of his strong democratic mandate on the issue, they seemed to suggest he should ignore it and to expect that it was only a matter of time before he would change his policies to suit the US. The US ambassador began to suggest economic implications of adherence to the policy. In the US, a White House spokesperson refused to rule out economic sanctions.

Lange was also resisted by his own civil service in the Department of Foreign Affairs, who could not tolerate the idea of a breakdown in their easy relationship with the United States, and feared for the economic impact of the policy. The Department of Defence and the military were opposed to the policy. When it became clear that it would mean suspension of military cooperation between the two countries, papers from the Department of Defence and from the military piled up on Lange's desk.

Many editorial writers in New Zealand's major newspapers, frightened by the threat to ANZUS, wrote vehemently against the policy. Lange was confident of support for the policy from the electorate. His strategy was to go to the US and get as much media time as possible to explain his country's policy. He did this effectively, and was treated coldly by the Reagan administration. All New Zealand attachés in Washington were dropped from invitation lists and the military was expected by the US to put pressure on the government. In New Zealand, however, unlike the US, the military was not a political force.

In 1985 a Greenpeace vessel, the Rainbow Warrior, docked in Auckland on its way to protest French nuclear testing at Moruroa atoll, was bombed by French secret agents. One person was killed. Western nations refrained from condemning this action, to the disappointment of New Zealanders. France was intransigent in refusing to admit the grave illegality of its action and tried to punish New Zealand for the latter's insistence on bringing wrongdoers to justice. Compensation was eventually paid by France, and this sum continues to partially fund peace movement activities today -- a source of satisfaction to peace workers.

By this time the anti-nuclear policy had begun to embed itself in New Zealanders' sense of their identity and this sense deepened with the passage of time. In 1991, 54 per cent said they would prefer to let the ANZUS treaty lapse rather than accept port visits. Some observers believe that New Zealanders have ceased to care that the US will not include them in ANZUS discussions.

Twenty-One Years Later

In 2007, the 20th anniversary of the policy was celebrated in Parliament. Every party spoke in favor of the policy, albeit a little grudgingly on behalf of the rightmost parties. Reversal of the policy is, in 2008, unthinkable.

The US has removed nuclear weapons from its surface ships, though not from its submarines. The ANZUS treaty formally continues, although it is effectively dead. Neither the US nor the UK have abandoned their ´neither confirm nor deny' policies concerning nuclear weapons on warships.

The US will not relate to New Zealand in defence discussions and exercises. Australia conducts bilateral relations with both countries.

The US State Department, however, describes its relationship with New Zealand as ´excellent.' New Zealand's relationship with France is cordial. New Zealand's economy did not suffer from the argument with the US.

New Zealanders, having learned also not to rely on Europe after the Rainbow Warrior affair, have become more oriented toward the South Pacific, South America, and Southeast Asia.Their confidence as a nation has increased.

New Zealand has been free to play a creative role in the work for the abolition of nuclear weapons, far more than has Canada, fearful of causing US offence. New Zealand, for example, is a founding member of the New Agenda Coalition, the vanguard of nation-state action on the issue, and recently brought a motion to the UN on the risks posed by high alert status of nuclear weapons. A New Zealand diplomat is now Director of the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs in Geneva.

New Zealand's anti-nuclear weapons stance has actually become a diplomatic asset. China requested New Zealand's membership in the negotiations over North Korea's nuclear weapons. This small country is playing well above its weight in disarmament issues. By comparison, Canadians who have examined our country's recent record of voting on nuclear weapons issues at the UN feel ashamed of Canada's backsliding.

There are differences determined by geography in relation to the US. Canada is more dependent on the US for trade and for border cooperation than is New Zealand. Canada is more at risk from US acquisition of natural resources. Cringing to the US is unlikely to lessen this risk.

Canadians can be as self-confident as New Zealanders. What if Canada said we don't want to be defended by nuclear weapons? We will remain in NATO, but require revision of our part in its nuclear weapons policy. We will not participate in the Nuclear Planning Group. We will not accept US nuclear-armed submarines in Canadian ports. We will not let our radar and satellite systems be used for nuclear weapons guidance.

If we as a nation adopted these policies, there would be a political fuss with the US. There might be threats of punishment, and perhaps some would be carried out. But the Bush administration is low in global esteem now, and perhaps can't afford to ditch its friend and neighbor. Possibly the European countries where there are increasing actions to get rid of US nuclear weapons on their territories might find common cause in NATO fora with Canada. The recent manifesto by five NATO generals on the future of NATO, dangerously elevating the role of nuclear weapons, requires an assertive response. If New Zealand could become nuclear-free during the Cold War, Canada could do it now.

Joanna Santa Barbara is a psychiatrist and peace activist, now living in New Zealand.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2008

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2008, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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