National seals a new US defence agreement, but the thaw began with Helen Clark's Government
Jonathan Coleman's visit to the Pentagon this week, his first as Defence Minister, was a significant one for New Zealand, and for him.
He signed the Washington Declaration with United States Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta, putting the official seal on a new era of defence relations.
It is the first public Defence agreement with the United States since New Zealand was expelled from the Anzus Alliance with Australia and the United States in the mid-1980s for its ban on nuclear-armed and powered ships.
Coleman is at pains to point out, however, that the new agreement is not binding and is nothing like the old one. "It is not Anzus in drag," he told the Weekend Herald.
"What it might mean is that there may be some opportunities for the three nations to exercise a bit together."
The agreement itself says the relationship "is based on full respect for the independence, self-reliance, and sovereignty of each" and refers to "respecting the effective laws and regulations of the other".
Notably, the US and New Zealand are referred to in the document as "participants," not "partners."
COLEMAN IS one of the younger cabinet ministers and has little direct connection with the politics of that era.
He was still at school when cracks in the old pact began with the election of the Fourth Labour Government.
He had his head in medical books at Auckland University when the anti-nuclear law was passed a couple of years later, on June 1, 1987.
Panetta, aged 73, served in US Army intelligence in the 1960s and was a California-based Congressman when the big freeze began.
Panetta's last job was director of the Central Intelligence Agency which he left on a high note; US special forces, relying on CIA intelligence, traced and killed Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1 last year.
After an invitation extended to him by Coleman, Panetta may well be the first US Defence Secretary to visit New Zealand since Caspar Weinberger in 1982, when David Thomson was Defence Minister.
Panetta arranged a guard of honour for the arrival of Coleman and his entourage which included Ambassador to Washington Mike Moore - a leading member of the Fourth Labour Government - Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, and Deputy Secretary of Defence Bede Corry.
They filed into a boardroom near Panetta's offices for formal bilateral talks, about eight-a-side.
Afterwards Panetta and Coleman adjourned to a small table under the New Zealand and United States flags and signed the declaration to spontaneous applause from both sides.
Foreign Minister Murray McCully has been the driving force in National to accelerate the improvement in relations with the United States and he believes that reflects public attitudes.
"Times have changed. We have got into a better space as a country about the US relationship in the last couple of years."
That was evident from the positive public response to the visit in November 2010 by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"I think there has been this sense in the US that there is something latently anti-American about this country and I think we have demonstrated that is not true," he said.
"But there is also a pride in our independence in foreign policy terms."
There is no disagreement about what the Washington Declaration will do directly: it will mean more co-operations in the Pacific, more military exercises together and guaranteed high level dialogue.
There is disagreement about what it might do indirectly: whether it might undermine New Zealand's independent foreign policy, whether it might complicate New Zealand's relationship with China, whether it might change the way New Zealand is seen by others.
Robert Ayson, professor of strategic studies at Victoria University, believes it endorses President Barack Obama's so-called "pivot" to Asia Pacific, a strategy to expand trade and military co-operation with countries in the region, to act as a counterweight to China's growing power.
The United States aims to increase its presence in the Pacific from 50 per cent to 60 per cent by 2020 and will station 2500 marines in Darwin by 2017.
"I think this is a strong statement of alignment," Ayson said this week. "I think we are a de facto ally now."
He believes being "independent" means not taking sides, taking a middle ground, maintaining good relationships with everybody.
"This does steer us in a different direction."
He also believes it could get in the way of New Zealand's relationship with China.
"There is the China-centred economic dynamism that is happening and then there is the American-centred security system."
"Where I think the blind spot is at the moment in New Zealand's overall policy is we are working on a bilateral relationship, as if we can maximise them without thinking how one affects the other."
China was one of the countries briefed about the agreement ahead of its signing on Wednesday and Coleman said he expected "no blow-back" from China.
McCully insists that the agreement won't compromise New Zealand's independence.
"We've made it very clear to the US Administration from the beginning that we greatly value our independent foreign policy as a country, that we think it makes us a better regional and global citizen, and a more valuable friend to have.
"We don't want to go back to the 'good old days' of the alliance."
An ally was a party to a binding defence pact such as Anzus.
"We have expressly stated that we are comfortable with our suspension from that pact."
Otago University defence specialist Professor Robert Patman saw the declaration as one in a series of steps over five years in rebuilding the relationship. "I don't share the view that this in any way compromises New Zealand's scope for independent decision-making in the area of security."
Asian countries made a big distinction between Australia, as an ally of the United States, and New Zealand which did not always follow the United States' lead.
"I'm not sure that political leaders, whatever the Government of the day, would actually want to do anything which would diminish New Zealand's diplomatic standing in the Asia-Pacific region and part of the standing is being seen as a country capable of taking an independent stand on key issues."
"If it became seen as doing Washington's bidding then that could undermine its position, but I don't see this particular move as in that league."
THE WASHINGTON Declaration is described as a "companion" to the Wellington Declaration signed in November 2010 by McCully and Clinton.
But in fact it has been seven years in the hatching. The genuine thaw in diplomatic relations began in 2007 under the watch of Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark and President George W Bush.
But Clark was resistant to closer defence ties which the United States was proposing in private.
Leaked diplomatic cables showed a sense of impatience by the US embassy in Wellington and Foreign Affairs at her dragging her heels.
Finally, in 2007, she agreed to formalise eight areas of military co-operation with the United States and later defended her agreement to its request to keep it secret on the grounds that they were "pretty minimalist".
The eight areas were North Korea; peace-keeping operations; proliferation security initiative; Asean Regional Forum; humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; Nato global partnership; Operation Enduring Freedom; and Antarctica co-operation.
Another cable released by Wikileaks shows that the United States and Defence were thinking about co-operation agreement even earlier - in 2005. The US and Singapore that year signed what was called a Strategic Framework Agreement, a partnership rather than a formal alliance - and it was seen as a potential model for New Zealand.
The cable talks about the embassy briefing given to the New Zealand Defence Force noting "the framework with Singapore was a useful example of the kind of broad, co-operative framework that the United States and New Zealand could explore should we ever engage in a dialogue about how to work through the issues that still divide us".
The embassy also briefed Bede Corry, now Deputy Defence Secretary, who at that time was in Foreign Affairs "noting the potential for similar US-NZ co-operation".
The United States does not have a formal alliance with Singapore and yet Ayson says it has become one of the most important relationships in the region, even more important than some with formal allies such as Thailand.
The strategic studies expert says: "The issue is not whether we are a formal ally; it's the actual intensity of the co-operation and this document talks about an intensity of co-operation."
Other countries would be looking not to what New Zealand was saying but what it was doing.
"Each time the Government says this is a small step, this is a small step. But the small steps add up to a big development."