Friday, October 21, 2016

A shipload of history

The New Zealand government announced this week that a US Navy vessel will visit New Zealand to help celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Royal New Zealand Navy next month. This will be the first visit by a US Navy ship since 1983. I think this is a good thing, but some others are somewhat less enthused.

The ship, the USS Sampson (DDG-102), is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and was launched in 2006. Like all ships in its class, it has conventional propulsion and conventional—if advanced—weaponry. Those two facts are vital.

The reason that no US ship has visited New Zealand in 33 years is New Zealand’s nuclear free legislation, which bans nuclear propelled or armed ships (among other things). For decades, US policy was to neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons on any US navy vessel.

However, nuclear weapons are now carried only by US submarines, not on US surface ships, and only submarines and aircraft carriers are nuclear propelled. There is a slight catch here in that the US Government still, technically, neither confirms nor denies the presence of nuclear weapons—even though it’s well known that surface ships are conventionally armed.

For a navy ship of any country to be permitted to visit to New Zealand, Prime Minister John Key has to certify that the visiting ship does not have nuclear propulsion or nuclear weapons.

“Under New Zealand’s nuclear free legislation I am required to be satisfied that any foreign military ship entering New Zealand is not nuclear armed,” Key said. “I have granted this approval after careful consideration of the advice provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.”

There’s a kind of “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” going on there: The Americans don’t say anything about the ship’s weaponry, but NZ Government officials can attest it’s nuclear-free because it’s well known that all surface ships are.

This has become a point of contention for some New Zealanders. For example, when Radio New Zealand posted their story to their Facebook Page, the reactions were not all welcoming. When I checked in preparation for this post, there were 125 “reactions” on Facebook, of which 58 were “Like” 55 were “Angry”, 3 “Sad”, 6 “Wow”, 2 “Love”, and 1 “Haha”.

I was going to share some typical comments, but in the end I decided against giving oxygen to fact-free politics, the phenomenon in which people think something is true, they feel it must be true, so, therefore, what they think and feel IS true, and facts are not. We see this behaviour at both ends of the political spectrum, and it frustrates the hell out of me.

There’s also an obvious anti-American bias among some of complainers, something I frequently see repeated in comments left on various news sites by those who are—or pretend to be—on the Leftward side of Left. Here’s just one example: People were complaining mightily about a US ship attending, but not a single word of protest about nuclear-capable ships from countries like Australia and China. In fact, visits of naval ships of other countries never attract protest or angry rants from keyboard warriors. I resent that as an American-New Zealander, of course, but also as someone who knows the world is more complex than some of those online complainers choose to believe.

Over the past 15 years or so, under both Labour-led and National-led governments, relations between New Zealand and the United States have been gradually warming. After the USA effectively ended the ANZUS alliance to punish New Zealand for going nuclear-free, New Zealand was forbidden to train with the US military. That led to the absurd situation in which Australia would train with the USA, then NZ would train with Australia, who would try and pass on the sorts of command and control capabilities that would be necessary if there was ever a major conflict in the region.

ANZUS is still in a coma, and defence talks are held only between the USA and Australia, but now, thanks to the Obama Administration, NZ trains with Australia and the USA, which makes far more sense for regional security.

So, the symbolic visit of the Sampson is important for the thaw in relations between New Zealand and the USA. However, there’s one other important point: It’s a vindication and validation of New Zealand’s nuclear-free legislation. As Key said:

“The process for considering the visit by the USS Sampson is the same as that used for all ships attending the International Naval Review. This process has been used for all military ships visiting New Zealand since the legislation was enacted.”

So, New Zealand’s nuclear-free legislation has endured AND the USA and New Zealand have nevertheless found ways to cooperate. I cannot see how that’s anything other than a win for New Zealand.

There are, of course, some ardent peace activists who see any cordial relations with the US military as being inherently awful (“evil”, some of them say…). I disagree. New Zealand’s strategic interests lie in the Western Alliance, as it’s often called, but that does NOT mean the country endorses every single thing that other countries do now or have ever done: New Zealand, like ALL countries in the world, puts its own strategic and security interests first. It would be mad, and a total dereliction of duty, for any country’s government to do otherwise in this very dangerous world.

The bottom line, however, is that a longstanding friend of New Zealand is going to participate in the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Royal New Zealand Navy, alongside many other friends and allies. That’s really ALL there is to this particular story.

Related: “Welcome readied for visiting nations to Navy’s 75th celebration” – This official web page from the Royal New Zealand Navy lists all the participants and all the corporate sponsors of the celebrations. Another example of how different 2016 is from1983.

The photo of the USS Sampson is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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