By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program
Fighting 800-to-1 odds usually reduces even the most hopeful underdog to a lackluster opponent. Not Shane Smeltz and the New Zealand All-Whites football team. Matched against defending World Cup champions Italy on Saturday, the Kiwis faced nearly certain defeat. Yet the can-do spirit, a bit of luck, and dogged determination carried them through to a historic 1-1 tie against the dominant Italian strikers. The match is a good reminder to Americans of the spirit and commitment of a good friend in Asia.
While the United States and New Zealand share overwhelmingly common interests on issues strategic to economic, the bilateral relationship has not yet reached its potential due to a lack of focus on the key pillars of cooperation. That situation can be addressed by committed partners across the Pacific and should be considered as proverbial “low-hanging fruit” by U.S. policymakers.
The United States has renewed its focus on the Asia-Pacific region and on reinforcing ties with friends and allies in the region who share interests in the development of enduring regional trade and security architecture as well as promoting mutual national interests. New Zealand is a natural partner in this context.
The U.S.-New Zealand link is manifest across key areas of cooperation, including trade and investment, security, and political, sociocultural alignment, and transnational issues. The United States and New Zealand are among the eight members of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations and members of the “8” in the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) + 8 group, which is the core of a budding regional security infrastructure. American and Kiwi forces fight shoulder to shoulder in some of the toughest places in Afghanistan. By all accounts from U.S. commanders and elite forces, New Zealand’s special forces are highly trained, professional, and committed and “are the guys you want to have your back when it gets ugly out there.” Cultural alignment and connections are very strong, with many shared values and common passions. Alignment on transnational issues was manifested in President Obama’s invitation to Prime Minister John Key to join his Nuclear Summit in Washington, DC, in April and on very close science and technology cooperation around areas such as climate change.
The Kiwis’ soaring spirit and determination on the pitch in South Africa provides a timely reminder that the United States has valuable friends in New Zealand. It is a good time to elevate the relationship and focus on mutual interests in regional trade and security infrastructure and invest in bilateral ties.