How and why New Zealand withdrew or was forced from ANZUS in 1985.

In Foreign Policy Analysis in 2010, Amy L. Catalinac reviewed the events that led to New Zealand withdrawal from ANZUS and the reasons for it.  She said:

In 1985, a dispute over nuclear ship visits led the United States to formally suspend its security guarantee to New Zealand under the trilateral ANZUS Treaty. In this article, I conceptualize this dispute as a case of intra-alliance opposition by a small state toward its stronger ally. I generate four hypotheses from the literature on alliances in international relations to explain why New Zealand chose to oppose its ally on the nuclear ships issue. Using new evidence, including interviews with 22 individuals involved in the dispute and content analysis of debates in the New Zealand parliament from 1976 to 1984, I conclude that a desire for greater autonomy in foreign policy was the driving factor behind New Zealand’s opposition.

At the end of this article Amy Catalinac concluded:

This article has attempted to explain the puzzle of the sudden and unexpected break-up of security ties between the United States and New Zealand in 1985. It asks why the New Zealand government let a dispute over nuclear ship visits lead to the withdrawal of the US security guarantee at a time when East–West tensions were acute and New Zealand had neither the resources nor will to make up for the security deficit. I demonstrated that this case is not well explained by existing theories of alliance formation and disintegration. Moreover, it is not one in which an emotional public or a committed political minority pushed the Prime Minister and his Cabinet into a position where they had no choice. As this article makes clear, a higher proportion of New Zealanders were in favor of New Zealand remaining in ANZUS than prohibiting nuclear ships. I argue that a better way of approaching this puzzle is to conceptualize it as a case of intra-alliance opposition between a small state and its more-powerful ally. While there are numerous examples of such kinds of opposition between the United States and its allies today, very rarely do smaller states allow their opposition to endanger the alliance itself. Understanding the motivations behind New Zealand’s opposition and the factors that enabled New Zealand to take it this far are important questions that have not been adequately answered in the literature.

Using the IR literature on alliances, I generated four hypotheses for why smaller states might oppose their stronger allies. I devised a means by which scholars can use qualitative data to distinguish between opposition motivated by ‘‘freeriding,’’ ‘‘hedging against entrapment,’’ ‘‘soft balancing,’’ and ‘‘autonomy concerns.’’ Using data from interviews conducted in 2005 with 22 prominent individuals involved in the squabble and a content analysis of debates in the New Zealand parliament on four private member’s bills between 1976 and 1984, I demonstrated that New Zealand’s opposition to US policy was motivated by a desire to gain greater autonomy in foreign policy; a category I call ‘‘opposition for autonomy.’’ I found that rationales offered by proponents at the time of the dispute closely matched those offered 21 years later. I discussed how the rejection of nuclear ships became connected to the exercise of independence in foreign policy via the protest movement.

While it is accepted wisdom in IR that states incur autonomy costs when forming an alliance, there has been little research to date that has addressed the questions of when states will become unhappy with their surrender of autonomy, and what they might do about it. The latter half of the article provides tentative answers to these questions. Employing a comparison with New Zealand’s nextdoor neighbor and partner in the ANZUS alliance, Australia, I found preliminary evidence that a decline in threat perception may be the catalyst for states to rediscover their desire for autonomy. While critics might challenge the applicability of this case to other US allies on the grounds that it would be difficult to 334 Why New Zealand Took Itself Out of ANZUS find a country as removed from the centers of power as New Zealand, I wish to counter this by saying that threat perception rises and falls in most countries, sometimes in accordance with the material balance or power and sometimes not. The most important lesson for US policymakers is that indicators of public support for an alliance are an unreliable indicator of how the public would respond should an enterprising leader or challenger seek to politicize the state’s relationship with its more-powerful ally.

What other conclusions can we draw from this case for US policymakers? One is that short of exaggerating the threat faced by the allies, it will behoove US policymakers to work harder to incorporate their allies’ desires for autonomy within the alliance. Rather than getting upset when confronted with small-scale assertions of autonomy by its smaller allies, such as the recent Japanese government’s desire to renegotiate the base realignment package signed by its predecessor, it may be prudent to approach these issues with less of an iron fist and more compromise. While US policymakers have a history of becoming extremely upset when their allies will not behave, publicly giving in on small issues is likely to facilitate smoother intra-alliance management without necessarily rendering the alliance less credible. More importantly, it will demobilize leaders seeking to raise their ratings by portraying US pressure as bullying. What my analysis of the New Zealand case revealed is that citizens are extremely susceptible to perceptions of bullying by their more-powerful ally. Even though a bare majority of New Zealand citizens agreed with the government’s policy at the time of the dispute, they immediately rallied (Lamare 1987). The Deputy Prime Minister at the time recalled ‘‘The American reaction to our policy cemented it further into the psyche of the New Zealand body politic. We thought: you’re not going to tell us what to do.’’36

My inability to trace the rejection of US ships to any tangible interest on the part of New Zealand suggests a third lesson for US policymakers: not all cases of intra-alliance opposition are motivated by a desire to reduce the risks or costs associated with being allied. I urge US alliance managers to listen to the signals its smaller allies send it. My interviews provided much anecdotal evidence that the US officials in charge of New Zealand at the time made no effort to understand what was driving New Zealand’s opposition. Had they recognized the connection between hosting nuclear ships and dependence, they may have refrained from making statements that seemed to deliberately scuttle the possibility of an independent identity for New Zealand.37 While critics could dismiss this on the grounds that the US spends its intelligence money on countries that are more strategically important than New Zealand, I venture that the cultural and linguistic commonalities between the two countries suggest that New Zealand should have been the easiest country for US policymakers to understand.

See link to full article:

Amy L. Catalinac is a New Zealander and at the time of writing this article was studying at Harvard University. She is now Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at New York University.


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2 Responses to How and why New Zealand withdrew or was forced from ANZUS in 1985.

  1. John Pickersgill says:

    The New Zealand Defence Force’s participation in overseas “US conflicts” since Vietnam should be a model for Australia and others. NZ has been very selective in it’s support for US conflicts, but has actively been a supporter and participant in many UN peace keeping operations. They are a model country for the world.

  2. James O'Neill says:

    I write as one who was personally involved in the decision of the Lange government at the time. The policy of no nuclear armed ships in New Zealand ports was one that Lange and the Labour Party took to the 1984 election. An election they comfortably won. New Zealand was prepared to allow US warships to visit NZ ports on the proviso that they did not carry nuclear weapons. The US had a policy of neither confirm nor deny” that their ships were nuclear armed. Under the policy on which the government had been elected they could not therefore be admitted to NZ waters. It was the Americans, not the New Zealanders, who made that decision to suspend visits and other forms of cooperation.
    Lange had a policy document written for him that set out the options in the event that the Americans withdrew their support. After the election a meeting was held with the authors of that document. Lange wanted to know what the American reaction would be. He was very mindful of what had happened to Whitlam when Whitlam had made a similar threatening (to the Americans) move to close Pine Gap. He was advised that the American reaction would be much huffing and puffing, but effective co-operation would continue because of New Zealand’s strategic geographical location making it an essential component of the Echelon spy network (Black Birch and Waihopai).
    That is exactly what happened. While New Zealand is not an active member of ANZUS in the sense that Australia is, co-operation continues through, inter alia, the so-called Five Eyes network.
    Lange’s original policy continues to enjoy overwhelming support in New Zealand, and its essential component (no nuclear weapons in NZ waters) remains intact. A visit by a US warship last year did not breach the policy because the Americans had given the assurance NZ sought.

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