The Biggest Little Diplomatic Crisis You've Never Heard of

Did Obama just mend the slow-motion U.S.-New Zealand Break-up?
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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hongis with Maori elder Lewis Moeau during the Maori welcome (Powhiri) on her arrival at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand / Reuters

Next week, President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard are set to announce a new U.S. military presence at Robertson Barracks, an Australian base in Darwin. This will require a major expansion of the facility, and according to Mike Green, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, allow U.S. Marines "to be able to fly helicopters, drop out of planes and shoot at things." Max Fisher has listed several reasons why this is a smart move for everyone involved, and the Obama administration deserves credit for anticipating distant threats in the region both obvious and abstruse. Australia is a stalwart ally of the United States, and has fought alongside U.S. troops in every major military campaign of modern times. Because of the UK-USA Agreement, the ANZUS Treaty, and fundamentally aligned goals in defense and foreign policy, setting up shop in Australia must have been as easy, diplomatically, as building a Walmart in Arkansas. The real question might be why it didn't happen sooner, but that question is offset by the relief that it didn't happen too late.

It's a smart move for reasons beyond some hypothetical conflict with Beijing. An economically beneficial base and an American regional presence friendlier than the quiet and ongoing U.S. commando operations in the Philippines might well mend edges frayed by an exhausting decade of war. It might also bring neighboring New Zealand back into the full comity of ANZUS. Like a well-played game of Risk, this would solidify Western military interests in the Pacific.

ANZUS (Australia-New Zealand-United States) has long been dysfunctional to the detriment of everyone involved. In the 1980's, New Zealand declared itself nuclear-free -- an understandable reaction to France testing nuclear bombs in the South Pacific. This policy, however, essentially precluded the U.S. Navy from docking at New Zealand harbors or passing though New Zealand territorial waters -- no small frustration at the height of the Cold War. The U.S. retaliated by withholding imagery intelligence from New Zealand, something to which the island nation was essentially entitled under UK-USA. (The basic message from the United States: You don't like nuclear weapons? Then you don't need intelligence used for nuclear weapons.) ANZUS, a three-nation defense treaty, didn't collapse, but rather splintered into twin alliances between the U.S. and Australia, and New Zealand and Australia.

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the icy relations between the U.S. and New Zealand thawed. This culminated in the Wellington Declaration in 2010, an unheralded but major diplomatic achievement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reestablishing strategic ties between the two nations. President Obama likewise continued President Bush's efforts to implement a free trade agreement with New Zealand.

Still, it's clear that Kiwis harbor a sort of national pride at its 25-year defiance of the United States. It didn't blink in the face of a superpower, and it won. On a recent trip to the country, I spoke with several locals for a book I was researching. Despite New Zealand's known military and intelligence assistance in both Afghanistan and Iraq, a common refrain seemed to be that such affairs were not their problem, and that while the American people are nice, U.S. foreign policy is extreme, and New Zealand doesn't want any part of it. As one local put it, "We don't invest our money in a military; we invest it in our people."

Information released by WikiLeaks offers a slightly different interpretation. According to diplomatic cables sent from Wellington to the United States, "[U.S. diplomats] have been told by retired [government of New Zealand] officials who were in senior positions in the Lange government at the time the anti-nuclear policy was instituted that one of the considerations favouring the policy was that it would lead to New Zealand withdrawing or being pushed out of ANZUS, thereby lessening the country's defense spending requirements at a time of fiscal and economic crisis."

Why does New Zealand matter? Among other things, signals intelligence. New Zealand has major listening posts in Tangimoana on the northern island, and in Waihopai Valley on the southern. The stations have their ears up on Eastern Asia. They are, in a sense, the Pacific branch office of the National Security Agency, and part of the UK-USA signals collection program. WikiLeaks cables revealed that the United States considers those areas "critical foreign dependencies." The Obama administration has placed a premium on covert and clandestine operations; good SIGINT is essential for these operations to be successful.

Along those lines, a visible, official, and welcomed presence of the United States military in Australia is a good thing. It will help bring attitudes soured during the Cold War into alignment with political realities the region will soon face. This change will be gradual, but it will come.