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When the diplomatic envoy of the world's most powerful nation suggests it is time to talk, you had better understand it is time to talk.

After listening to the departing American ambassador's Independence Day speech on Monday, no one could be in any doubt that Washington wants to talk about getting United States-New Zealand relations back on a proper footing after two decades in limbo.

In a reversal of Theodore Roosevelt's famous dictum of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, Charles Swindells talked surprisingly tough in warning the relationship was "starved of trust" and drifting backwards.

His banshee wail was inevitably highlighted by those who grind their axes on anti-American sentiment as another example of Washington heavying New Zealand into dumping the law banning port visits by nuclear-powered warships.

However, the Americans hardly need to be told any sign of such heavying will be counter-productive.

So the ambassador's verbal blast - intended to jolt New Zealanders out of their complacency - was accompanied by the conciliatory idea of a "comprehensive dialogue" covering areas of disagreement and matters of mutual interest.

Even so, it is an offer no New Zealand Government can refuse.

Essentially, the Americans are fed up with both countries endlessly talking around the impasse at the heart of the relationship and instead want to confront it and work through it.

This is in part being driven by Swindells, who made it a goal to break through the blockage. New Zealand has been included in a State Department programme aimed at improving strained relations with several nations.

Washington wants a forum where the two countries' priorities can go on the table and which would at least sort out difficulties flowing from New Zealand's ban on nuclear-powered warships, if not dealing with the ban itself.

Discussions would likely begin at officials' level to make progress before the politicians got involved. That way, if the talks falter, no one loses face.

It will not be easy. Not even the brightest mind has yet found a way through the impasse.

New Zealand has refused to ditch the law. The Americans have always argued that if they accept it, domestic lobbies in strategically important countries such as Japan will pressure for similar laws.

However, the punishment Washington imposed on New Zealand in the 1980s - such as banning joint training exercises - is now hampering operational flexibility in places such as Afghanistan, where American and New Zealand troops are working alongside one another.

While there is no obvious answer, Swindells' point is that it is important to start talking.

Dialogue can begin only after the election. No progress can be made beforehand, particularly with Labour trying to extract political mileage out of any National fuzziness towards keeping the ban.

But it was crucial the invitation was made beforehand. Issuing an invitation afterwards to a Don Brash-led government would have given the impression Washington had bided its time until National was back in power. The inference would have been National was a soft touch for a law change - so making it harder for Brash to agree to one.

Likewise, it was also vital the invitation was delivered before the formation of any Labour-Greens coalition.

With the Prime Minister saying she is willing to talk, it will be difficult for the Greens to block her from doing so.

However, Labour is clearly annoyed by Swindells' missive, especially his warning that New Zealand and the US risk drifting even further apart.

Having just dispatched a 50-strong SAS contingent to Afghanistan as the latest contribution to the American-led war on terrorism, Cabinet ministers are wondering what they have to do to satisfy Washington and whether the State Department really understands the limits on how far Labour can go.

It may be that Washington understands that perfectly well. The talk of drift in the relationship is code for Washington's concern that New Zealand is drifting into military irrelevance under Labour.

While the Clark government argues its 10-year military procurement plan will modernise the Defence Force after years of neglect, the nature of those equipment purchases and whether they allow New Zealand to play any meaningful role in the region beyond "soft" peace-keeping duties worries both Washington and Canberra.

But while the Americans would want the nuclear ban up for discussion, they will get no change out of a Labour-Greens Government. It could be a different story with National.

Damaged by his "gone by lunchtime" remark, Brash has sought to fence off the anti-nuclear issue before the election by saying any change in the law would require a public mandate. That would be either by referendum or in the form of an explicit manifesto commitment - and National is making no such commitment.

But, like Clark, Brash is willing to talk to the Americans afterwards.

Brash has argued National's failure to take a firm position on the ban is due to the difficulty of working out what is in New Zealand's best interests from the vantage of the Opposition benches.

If that sounds like an excuse, then Swindells' offer would see Brash, as Prime Minister, informed of exactly what was in New Zealand's best interests.

More than likely Brash's hands would be tied, however. New Zealand First looks like being his only viable coalition partner, and that party is committed to keeping the ban.

True, Winston Peters also favours more referendums. But his notion of popular democracy is based on people power constraining executive power, not Governments using referendums to force through unpopular policies.

New Zealand First well knows it would be roasted for agreeing to a referendum that overturned the ban. Worse, it would then be morally obliged to supply the parliamentary numbers to pass legislation repealing a law it actually supported.

Peters might not be the only one pondering the wisdom of using the blunt instrument of a referendum. A majority in favour of the ban would mean the law could not be touched for another decade or longer. Washington would be back to square one.