A short statement issued by the Prime Minister on Wednesday marked the end of an era in New Zealand's defence and foreign relations.

It read, "I am pleased to announce that the USS Sampson, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, will attend the Royal New Zealand Navy's international naval review in November. Under New Zealand's nuclear free legislation I am required to be satisfied that any foreign military ship entering New Zealand is not nuclear armed. I have granted this approval after careful consideration of the advice provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade."

That was the essence of it. Those three sentences, or similar ones, were all that New Zealand governments have ever asked the United States to accept as a condition of naval visits since the Labour Party's nuclear-free policy was put into affect in 1985.

Successive US governments have perfectly understood that a statement of that kind was all that would be made but they considered it to be in breach of their policy to "neither confirm nor deny" the presence of a nuclear weapon on particular vessel.


Even now, John Key's statement has been careful not to say simply, "I have been advised the USS Sampson is not nuclear armed." This contrasts with the rest of his announcement, regarding the ship's propulsion. "New Zealand's legislation also does not allow ships which are nuclear propelled into New Zealand," he said, "and the advice I received from officials is that the USS Sampson is not nuclear powered."

Nuclear power has never presented the diplomatic problem posed by weapons. The US readily agreed to send a conventionally fuelled ship in 1985 when the Lange Government was looking for a way to reconcile New Zealand's Anzus partners with its nuclear ban.

The ageing destroyer the US proposed to send at that time, USS Buchanan, was almost certainly not nuclear armed but it was known to be capable of being so and that was enough for Labour's MPs and party members to bring pressure on the cabinet to refuse the visit, which it did.

It is doubtful the US at that time would have accepted a public statement on the ship's weaponry in any case but the die was cast. New Zealand was suspended from Anzus the following year.

A great deal has changed in the interim. The Cold War has ended, the US long ago told the world its surface ships no longer routinely carry nuclear weapons, New Zealand forces have gradually gained re-admission to military exercises with the US and its allies, and during all that time the warships of other nuclear-armed states, the UK and China, have occasionally visited.

They have all been subject to the same consideration under our anti-nuclear legislation, according to John Key. Their clearance attracted no public attention or protests. Will the same said when the USS Sampson arrives next month?

The fact that the US has accepted entry on New Zealand's terms at long last can be seen as a victory if we wish, but the ship should be greeted as an old friend, representing a relationship that need never have been damaged.