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Friendly Fire: Nuclear Politics & the Collapse of ANZUS, 1984-1987

26 May 2014
reviewer Professor Robert Ayson

Wellington’s alliance dispute with Washington over port access by United States vessels in the wake of New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy remains the most important foreign policy crisis for Australia’s close neighbour in recent memory. Gerald Hensley, who was one of New Zealand’s top officials for decades and who served during the Lange government era when this crisis played out, has spent a good part of his retirement writing a series of important books on the history of New Zealand’s alliance relations. In Friendly Fire, he has produced the most important account to-date of the crisis which ended the days of ANZUS as a trilateral security relationship. From 1986 that alliance would be known primarily for the strong bilateral link that remained between the US and Australia.

Taking advantage of his familiarity with many of the leading players in this drama, Hensley documents a rich array of interviews which complement his splendid research into the primary files. The hallmarks of authenticity are there, including the colourful (and not at all complimentary) language used by Bob Hawke in referring to New Zealand’s larger than life Prime Minister of the time. Some surprises are also in store including the efforts to keep the door of negotiation open by Paul Wolfowitz, who became famous as one of the George W. Bush era neo-cons. By contrast, Secretary of State, George Shultz, who would commonly be seen as the more accommodating of the two, was ready to give up on New Zealand somewhat earlier in the piece.

Hensley’s account offers a step-by-step understanding of the growing American conclusion that Lange and his political colleagues had only been pretending that a way out of the dispute was in the offing. The book confirms that American officials and leaders genuinely believed a workaround of the nuclear-free policy was possible, leading to a visit by an American naval vessel to signify that the alliance was still in good heart. That would not happen. Here Lange is by no means the only player. His more studious deputy Geoffrey Palmer (who would go onto to succeed him) gets plenty of attention on two occasions: the first when he held the fort while Lange was incommunicado on a trip to Tokelau during an especially important moment in the US-New Zealand crisis; the second when he visited Washington, in New Zealand’s last main chance to keep its alliance relationship alive, where he reportedly gave his American counterparts a badly timed-lecture on democracy.

The reader gets a clear sense of a tragedy unfolding and of the hardening of positions on both sides with New Zealand and American political leaders both believing that they were the only ones being flexible and both unable to see the perspective from the other side of the table. Britain’s last-ditch attempt to mediate comes across as a rather unusual piece of diplomacy amongst traditional friends because it included suggestions from London on how New Zealand’s impending nuclear-free legislation could be redrafted. That it was undertaken in London and not Canberra gives some measure of the anger in Australian government circles about the implications of what a Labour government across the ditch was doing.

There would be no escape from what the United States was warning was likely to happen: the suspension of Washington’s alliance commitment that some New Zealanders would come to see as signifying an increasingly autonomous line in foreign policy. But that is not how Hensley sees it. He begins his epilogue by arguing that a historian can only offer a dispassionate recollection of the events and cannot tell us whether the crisis was a disaster for New Zealand’s foreign policy or the start of a new dawn. Yet if it is not by that stage clear to the reader (and it should be since his disdain for Lange is scarcely hidden), these last few pages tell us in no uncertain terms which side of that debate the author favours. The quest for an ‘independent foreign policy’ (the quotation marks are Hensley’s) was at least in those heated days of the 1980s, ‘a code word for anti-Americanism.’ In allowing the security relationship with the US to break down, and in focusing instead on the South Pacific, New Zealand had chosen a path which equated to ‘a fundamental withdrawal from the world.’ That is certainly not how some saw it then and how many now do. But as an elegant account of this diplomatic crisis, Gerald Hensley’s new book should now be the first point of reference for anyone wanting to make sense of this crucial moment in New Zealand’s foreign policy.

Gerald Hensley, Friendly Fire: Nuclear Politics & the Collapse of ANZUS, 1984-1987Auckland University Press, 2013

Reviewed by Professor Robert Ayson, Professor of Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington