Donald Trump’s astonishing election victory has provided a surreal context for John Kerry’s current visit to New Zealand. The Key government can promote the need for real Security Council action on Syria all it wants. And Mr Kerry can concur all he likes. But everyone is aware of the bigger picture. The 45th President is not going to be Hillary Clinton, who in 2010 became the first Obama Administration Secretary of State to visit New Zealand. And so Mr Kerry, who has just become the second, cannot offer a golden thread of American foreign policy consistency running from the present to the future. Instead his visit may be one of the last chances for normal conversations before the Trump team charge through the White House gates.
Just how many of Trump’s alarming foreign policy sentiments are converted into action will only be clear after January’s inauguration. But it would be foolish to think that his administration’s approach will be so toned down from campaign trail rhetoric that no one will really notice the difference from the Obama era.
The Key government is already anticipating the consequences. Hillary Clinton, a chief architect of the US rebalance, may have since poured cold water on the TPP of which she was once such a strong proponent. But as New Zealand’s Prime Minister has already indicated, the imminent arrival of a Trump Administration means that this hard fought-for trade agreement is dead. This ruins the chances that, alongside a very active China, the United States will be seated at the forefront of Asia’s economic integration. And as mutual prosperity driven by free trade has been the signature tune of the Key foreign policy, this is a body blow for the sort of region that Wellington would like to see emerging.
It could get worse than that. If any of the doubts that Trump has evinced about America’s traditional alliance relations in Asia are translated into his actions as President, Washington will look like a strategically inept military power in Asia. This comes just at the time when the security implications of China’s rise are being felt in the region. Hence while Gerry Brownlee recently told an audience in Beijing that cooperation between China and the United States was an important ingredient for a stable region, he also said that ‘New Zealand supports and welcomes the critical role the United States plays in ensuring stability and has welcomed the increase in defence engagement under the United States strategic rebalance.’
So it is ironic that next week sees another prominent American visitor to New Zealand. This is the USS Sampson, the Arleigh Burke class warship which will be in Auckland for the International Naval Review, the highlight of Royal New Zealand Navy’s 75th anniversary celebrations.
Now it is true that the United States is far from the only partner coming to this celebration. Vessels are also coming from other traditional partners including lead ally Australia, as well as Canada and Singapore. Other Asia-Pacific navies represented are those of the Republic of Korea, Japan, China, India and Indonesia, and yes, China. The South Pacific is well represented with vessels from Tonga, Samoa and Cook Islands, and a wider Pacific Rim feel will come from Chile’s participation.
But there is something special about the visit of the Sampson. More than thirty years ago, it was the controversy around the proposed visit of an earlier class of guided missile destroyer, the USS Buchanan, that spelled the end for New Zealand’s active alliance relationship with the United States. And it is therefore hard to imagine anything more symbolic of how far New Zealand-US security relations have come in recent years than to have an American naval ship visit Auckland Harbour.
In case you have been asleep in the intervening decades don’t think for one moment that the Sampson’s arrival brings a new era of active military relations. That door was opened when Labour’s Helen Clark was still Prime Minister, and George W. Bush, a Republican, was still President. The trigger was Washington’s recognition of New Zealand’s value as a military partner in Afghanistan. This initial momentum would later be accelerated by the Key Government and Obama Administration which signed the Wellington and Washington Declarations in quick succession.
Full intelligence cooperation between the United States and New Zealand has been a fact of life for several years now. New Zealand has become an active participant in the US-led RIMPAC exercises held each year off Hawaii. The steady flow (verging on a flood) of American military visitors to New Zealand tells its own story of how close things have come. New Zealand military personnel have been part of the Dawn Blitz amphibious exercise off the Californian coast and and have played a small but noticed role in an amphibious exercise on the Korean peninsula. New Zealand has been part of Talisman Sabre, a major exercise which Australia hosts as a leading part of its intensive cooperation with United States forces. And the Key Government has extended the training mission that New Zealand forces are undertaking in Iraq with Australia: a commitment that will have pleased the United States as the leader of the anti-ISIS coalition.
The Sampson’s arrival can be treated as an important milestone in this wider and deeper pattern of New Zealand-US military collaboration. But it is not the cause of the de facto alliance which David Capie and I have detected in the relationship between the two countries. We spotted this several years ago. Of course, you may wonder at the wisdom of that depiction. But it is hard to avoid thinking that in the midst of their deepening strategic connections, expectations have been growing in Washington and Wellington that in a significant regional crisis, they would be there to help each other.
What those mutual expectations will look like in a Trump era is a little difficult to fathom. My bet is that nothing much will change on the bilateral front in the short term. That seems to be Mr Key’s instinct too. And would a Trump Administration accept an invitation to send an American ship to New Zealand’s International Naval Review? The answer would seem to be yes. Would a Trump Administration want the close defence and intelligence links with New Zealand to continue? The answer again seems to be in the affirmative.
But this is hardly the point in the new era of American foreign policy we are about to enter. What matters more for New Zealand is the effects that Washington’s decisions have on the region around us. And given the Trump view of trade agreements, Asian alliances, and its approach to the international system of rules, the Asia-Pacific region is likely to become a much more uncertain and unsteady place. No wonder analysts from Australia, which relies so heavily on the US alliance, are freaking out.
So my advice is that we should enjoy the false normalcy of the next two months as much as we can. What we might call the Kerry-Sampson moment in US-New Zealand relations could be part of the last bit of calm before an Asia-Pacific storm. Even if Mr Kerry’s successor as Secretary of State is the combative Newt Gingrich or America’s leading UN-skeptic John Bolton, Wellington’s own diplomatic relationship with Washington may survive relatively intact. But where Trump’s America takes the wider region and the whole world could easily leave New Zealand’s foreign policy decision-makers facing a severe anxiety attack.
Image: US Department of State