Dr Stephen Hoadley is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland and author of New Zealand United States Relations (NZIIA, 2nd ed 2016).

A week from today a US Navy ship will enter Auckland's Waitemata Harbour for the first time in 33 years.

The USS Sampson, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, will take its place alongside a dozen other countries' warships in the naval review commemorating the RNZN's 75th anniversary.

For those too young to have experienced the protests generated by past visits of US warships - Texas (1983), Haddo (1979), Pintado (1978), Truxtun (1976) and Long Beach (1976) - it is important to reflect on the emotions associated with New Zealand's relations with the US, and the facts, so new New Zealanders can appreciate the recent achievements the ship visit symbolises.


New Zealanders have had mixed feelings about the rise of US power since its annexation of Hawaii and the displacement of the Royal Navy as the premier military force in the Pacific. The Cold War nuclear arms race sharpened opposition to nuclear weapons and stimulated protests against visits by nuclear-powered (and presumably nuclear-armed) US warships.

A Labour Government was elected in 1984 on an anti-nuclear platform and, after public opposition rallied by back-bencher Helen Clark, in 1985 refused the visit of the USS Buchanan. That ship was neither nuclear-powered nor nuclear-armed but had deck fittings making it capable of launching nuclear anti-submarine rockets.

Parliament in 1987 formalised the policy by passing the Nuclear Free Act prohibiting the entry of nuclear weapons and nuclear-propelled vessels. This legislation was, and still is, a world first.

The US responded by suspending bilateral military exercises, intelligence sharing, and Cabinet-level visits, and by withdrawing its security guarantee, thus ending New Zealand's participation in the Anzus alliance.

Nevertheless the US did not interrupt other aspects of the relationship, such as trade, investment, and international diplomacy. New Zealand supported US initiatives in trade liberalisation and peacekeeping, counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations, Antarctic research and scientific, educational and cultural exchange.

President Bill Clinton recognised New Zealand's constructive international contributions and resumed high-level diplomacy in the late 1990s. But US ship visits were not on the agenda.

In the 2000s, a series of visits by Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Admiral Harry Harris signalled a warming of the relationship. The US resumed bilateral exercises and intelligence sharing. Vice-president Joe Biden visited in July 2016 and accepted New Zealand's invitation to send a ship to the RNZN's anniversary celebration. Thus ended a 33-year hiatus.

Did New Zealand compromise its nuclear-free policy to achieve the resumption of US warship visits? The 1987 act empowers the Prime Minister to ascertain vessels are nuclear-free - if so, they are welcome. Prime Minister John Key, advised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has declared that the USS Sampson is nuclear-free and thus welcome. The US had hitherto refused to submit its warships to New Zealand judgments. Washington's recent decision to send a ship has not altered its "neither confirm nor deny" policy but rather has adjusted it to unfolding circumstances.

These include the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, the removal of nuclear weapons from all US surface ships and the pursuit of common interests with New Zealand around the globe. Furthermore, the rise of China and the US "rebalance" to Asia have raised the value of co-operation with New Zealand.

The dissolving of the ship-visit anomaly and the convergence of security, trade, and environmental interests have restored harmony to the relationship. But it should not be forgotten that the past three decades have also seen dissonance on nuclear and conventional arms control, trade access, and stances towards the Palestinian Authority and the International Criminal Court. These and other differences of policy still require management.

Steady diplomacy, based on the pursuit of common national interests rather than hyper-patriotism or emotional reactions, has served both governments well, and has made possible their mutually advantageous co-operation in many sectors.

Perfect agreement on all issues is an unreal expectation. Co-operation on those issues on which agreement can be found, and the quarantine and management of issues that cannot, is the prudent approach to NZ-US relations. The ship visit is a symbol of the success of pragmatic diplomacy on both sides.