United States-New Zealand Relations: Where to in 2014?

By Jack Georgieff

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel meets with New Zealand Minister of Defense Jonathan Coleman in the Pentagon, October 28, 2013. Source: U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Government Work.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel meets with New Zealand’s Minister of Defense Jonathan Coleman at the Pentagon, October 28, 2013. With military relations officially restored, how will New Zealand’s 2014 elections shape the relationship? Source: U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Government Work.

Military relations between the United States and New Zealand were officially restored in October after a three-decade hiatus. Bilateral relations are now closer than ever before. But this is not guaranteed after New Zealand’s 2014 general election.

Recent polling suggests the opposition Labour Party may be able to form a coalition government with the Green Party. John Key’s National Party is still the most popular in the country, but it has few viable coalition partners. A third term in office is far from certain. What might a Labour-Green government mean for relations with the United States? A cooler relationship cannot be ruled out.

The recent NSA revelations have ignited another fuse in a debate that has been running hot down under for over a year. Revelations that New Zealand’s electronic intelligence agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), illegally spied on 88 citizens over the past decade came to light in April 2013. Flawed legislation did not make clear whether the GCSB was authorized to use its resources assist intelligence collection for domestic agencies.

Amended legislation passed in August, but not before a polarized public debate that saw many on the left question the value of these intelligence agencies and their relationship with counterparts in the United States. The Labour Party has pledged to repeal the amended GCSB legislation and fully review all intelligence agencies publicly. Green Party co-leader Russel Norman has called for New Zealand to withdraw from Five Eyes altogether. Many in Labour rank and file share similar skepticism over the role of intelligence agencies.

This does not bode well for relations between Washington and Wellington. Any new government under Labour leader David Cunliffe is almost certain to include Green Party cabinet ministers. They do not view military and intelligence links with the United States in a positive light. The Snowden revelations will have reinforced this view. Diplomatic nimbleness and flexibility will be needed from Washington if John Key’s government loses power. But equally a future prime minister Cunliffe would likely resist the push within sections of his party and that of the Greens to cool relations with the United States, working out of the pragmatic diplomatic textbook of his predecessor Helen Clark.

Wellington operates an independent foreign policy whilst maintaining strong relations with Washington. Dealing in dichotomous absolutes does neither any favors. Labour and the Greens must realize this, or risk pushing relations back into the icy past.

Mr. Jack Georgieff is a research associate at The Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia and a former visiting Thawley Scholar at CSIS. Follow him on Twitter @JackGeorgieff.


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