John Armstrong on politics

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Declaration featherlight but rich in symbolism

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The declaration highlights a new US-NZ strategic partnership, though what is meant by 'strategic' is not really clear. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The declaration highlights a new US-NZ strategic partnership, though what is meant by 'strategic' is not really clear. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Now we know why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs official who this week briefed journalists on Hillary Clinton's visit was so reluctant to say anything about the contents of the Wellington Declaration before yesterday's release.

When it comes to content, there is not much to say.

The Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights or the Gettysburg Address it most definitely isn't. The declaration is light years away from being Anzus Reborn.

It makes it absolutely clear that while New Zealand is now a partner of the United States, this country is still some way short of regaining its status as an ally, which it enjoyed before it adopted an uncompromising anti-nuclear policy in the mid-1980s.

The declaration is so light on where the Wellington-Washington relationship goes from here that it could have floated out of the Beehive's theatrette on the hot air being generated by the American Secretary of State and her New Zealand counterparts, Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Minister Murray McCully, as the two countries put their signatures to the document.

The declaration highlights a new United States-New Zealand strategic partnership, though what is meant by "strategic" is not really clear.

The commitment to regular meetings between the two countries' foreign ministers is important. But that has been happening for a number of years, anyway.

The one nugget from Key's and McCully's point of view is that those discussions will have a "political-military" content. As this week's defence white paper emphasised, the minority National Government is dead keen on raising the extent of military co-operation with Washington.

Despite the above reservations, the declaration is hugely significant, if only in its mere existence. As McCully says, it is highly symbolic. Some of it is vacuous diplomat burble. It struggles to get as far as as a second page.

But - again, as McCully says - it does (finally) turn the page on an era. The long thaw of the frozen relationship which has been going on for a decade and more is over. Those suffering "thaw fatigue" will praise the Lord.

As Clinton says, the two countries can now "explore" opportunities for joint military training, exercises and exchanges of military personnel.

Such activities have been happening intermittently for some time, however, when it suits both countries. They have been kept well below the radar of public attention.

However, the gap between Washington's still cool(ish) public stance on advancing the relationship and the fact that New Zealand soldiers are fighting (and dying) alongside American ones in Afghanistan jars badly. Not only is it farcical, it is downright dishonest and disgraceful.

If nothing else, Clinton's visit and the Wellington Declaration should close that credibility gap.

- NZ Herald

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