US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta was well informed and engaging. The meeting David Shearer and I had with him was scheduled for 15 minutes on Saturday morning. It went for three times that long.
Fresh from the Otara market collecting signatures for the petition against state asset sales, I had changed into a suit expecting a relatively formal meeting.
He turned up wearing jeans and a casual shirt.
The meeting was an open and substantive one, involving a discussion ranging from Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Asia and the Pacific to the US Presidential election.
Panetta has a long and distinguished career including Director of the Office for Civil Rights, 16 years in Congress, Chair of the House Committee on the Budget, Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff and Director of the CIA before assuming his current position.
In the first visit in 30 years by a US Secretary of Defense, he took a significant step towards removing the last remnants of US sanctions imposed on New Zealand for declaring itself nuclear free under the Lange Labour Government.
Building on progress over the last decade, it was a welcome further move. A strong and warm relationship with the US makes sense given its influence in the world and shared commitments on values like democracy and human rights.
But from my and Labour’s perspective, it does not place us on a path to resume alliance commitments, or nuclear ship visits.
New Zealand has moved on from there. Labour’s strong belief in speaking with an independent voice based on our values and interests has become part of the mainstream New Zealand belief system.
That’s why even though it might prefer to do so, National won’t openly signal a move back to alliances and nuclear ship visits.
As a small country, New Zealand gains respect and influence not by echoing anyone else’s voice but by taking considered and principled stands on international issues.
Nuclear ship visits, return to ANZUS or permanent stationing of US troops here would not be compatible with New Zealand’s desire to be seen as having an independent voice.