Media stories of the Week: US Ambassador dismissive of our laws



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Every so often, the mainstream news media do their job well, and little nuggets of insights are revealed…

TV3’s ‘The Nation‘ on 28 November had host and highly-experienced journalist, Lisa Owen, interview current US Ambassador, Mark Gilbert.

Amongst topics covered was National’s determination to invite an American warship to New Zealand.

Since 1987,  this country has been a nuclear weapons and nuclear-propelled* free-zone and even National grudgingly acceded to Labour’s then-revolutionary policy. At a time when the Cold War between super-powers held the entire planet at the precipice to atomic armageddon, a tiny little country of barely three million held up it’s collective hand and refused to participate in the madness.

In 2004, then-leader of the opposition National Party, Don Brash made secret promises to a US Congressional delegation that New Zealand’s nuclear-free legislation ban would be ‘gone by lunchtime‘. The story hit headlines, though Brash denied making any such promise. Two years later, after losing an election; personal-life problems; and unable to take Helen Clark head-on in debates; Brash was ousted as National’s leader.

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Shortly after rolling Brash and seizing power in the National Party, newly-elected leader John Key vowed that his party would maintain New Zealand’s nuclear-free legislation, asserting;

“National’s position has been in limbo in relation to nuclear ships, so I want to make it perfectly clear that I support the nuclear-free legislation.

For as long as I am leader of the National Party, the nuclear-free legislation will remain intact.

I think New Zealanders have a long-held view that this is important to our nation-building. I think they see it as New Zealand standing up strongly for something it believes in.

I believe in that position and I see absolutely no reason to change it.”

In 2012, Key repeated his promise to maintain New Zealand’s status as nuclear-free;

“There’ll be no change to New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation, no change to the provisions about boats that would come to New Zealand.”

This year, Key has been making noises to invite a US warship to New Zealand, with an invitation issued at the beginning of November;


US naval ships invited to visit NZ


When challenged whether or not National would take steps to seek guarantees that a visiting warship would neither be nuclear armed nor propelled, Key replied it was not necessary. In effect, he referred people to use Google;

“There’s plenty of open source documentation and qualification that would allow you to form a view – for instance, I don’t think anyone’s ever argued that a US coastguard is either nuclear-powered nor nuclear-armed.

There’s enough stuff there, depending on the vessel that they send, for an assessment to be made.”

Despite the supposed removal of all atomic weapons from US warships announced by President Bush in September 1991, the US military still maintains a “neither confirm, nor deny” policy, as stated unequivocally by Ambassador Gilbert on 28 November;

“We will always stay with our ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy.”

Yet, as President Bush maintained on 28 September 1991;

“… the United States will withdraw all tactical nuclear weapons from its surface ships and attack submarines, as well as those nuclear weapons associated with our land-based naval aircraft. This means removing all nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles from U.S. ships and submarines, as well as nuclear bombs aboard aircraft carriers. The bottom line is that under normal circumstances, our ships will not carry tactical nuclear weapons.”

Bush has stated categorically that atomic weapons were removed from US warships.

Why is Ambassador Gilbert unwilling to confirm that?

Furthermore,  Lisa Owen extracted this admission from the Ambassador;




Lisa Owen: Okay, so will you send a ship that complies with our laws? Let me put it that way.

Mark Gilbert: First of all, a decision has not been made whether we’re going to be able to send a ship or not.

Lisa Owen: If you were to send one, would you send one that complied with our laws?

Mark Gilbert: We will always stay with our ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy.

Lisa Owen: You’re going to stick hard and fast with that?

Mark Gilbert: We always have.

Note that not only did the Ambassador refuse to confirm President Bush’s removal of atomic weapons from US warships – but he also refused to comply with our laws.

This is a shocking admission that the United States is prepared to ignore our laws, and that our esteemed dear Leader is prepared to turn a blind eye.

There is nothing from Key’s or Gilbert’s assertions that fills me with confidence that either men are willing to uphold this country’s nuclear free legislation.


* The sinkings of the Lermontov and Rena perhaps offer sound reasons why the ban on nuclear propulsion should remain alongside atomic weapons.





TV3: The Nation – Interview and transcript – US Ambassador Mark Gilbert

NZ History: Nuclear-free New Zealand

Beehive: Not yet gone by lunchtime

Radio NZ: Gone by lunchtime stoush erupts again

NZ Herald: Key’s vow makes National anti-nuke

TV3: NZ will stay nuclear-free – Key

Radio NZ: US naval ships invited to visit NZ

New York Times: Bush’s Arms Plan – Remarks by President Bush on Reducing U.S. and Soviet Nuclear Weapons

NZ National Maritime Museum: The Last Cruise of the Mikhail Lermontov

Transport Accident Investigation Commission: Marine Inquiry 11-204: Container ship MV Rena grounding on Astrolabe Reef, 5 October 2011

Other bloggers

No Right Turn: Against a US ship visit

The Daily Blog:  Is a US warship finally coming to New Zealand?

The Standard: US ship visit and nuclear free NZ




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  1. Frank:

    I seem to be missing something here. In what way is Gilbert’s re-iteration of the “neither confirm nor deny” policy a breach of NZ law?

    It strikes me that NZ, being a minor player on the world stage, has probably been sent a rather mediocre ambassador by world standards. You know, the type who isn’t much above pulling out trite, well-worn slogans, in order to avoid answering intelligent questions.

    • I suppose what I’m confused about is this:

      Who exactly is conning us here – Gilbert or the PM?

      “There’s plenty of open source documentation and qualification that would allow you to form a view . . . . ”

      I don’t appreciate being told by the PM that in effect he doesn’t give a damn about the law. And that if we don’t like what they send us then we can go and google it to see for ourselves whether its nuclear armed/propelled or not.

      Now that’s what i call “leadership” of the type that we have come to expect from a do-nothing, toothless (except on camera), lame-duck PM.

    • G’day Murray,

      In answer to your question as to “In what way is Gilbert’s re-iteration of the “neither confirm nor deny” policy a breach of NZ law?”, I refer you to his exchange with Ms Owen,

      Lisa Owen: Okay, so will you send a ship that complies with our laws? Let me put it that way.

      Mark Gilbert: First of all, a decision has not been made whether we’re going to be able to send a ship or not.

      Lisa Owen: If you were to send one, would you send one that complied with our laws?

      Mark Gilbert: We will always stay with our ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy.

      Lisa Owen: You’re going to stick hard and fast with that?

      Mark Gilbert: We always have.

      Gilbert put pre-eminence on the US position of “Neither confirm nor deny” over giving Ms Owen an assurance that the US would comply with our anti-nuke legislation.

      The tenor of that exchange is that US policy takes priority over our laws.

      In effect, US warships may be devoid of atomic weapons. Or they may not. We don’t know.

      What he did say was that they have always followed that policy. He did not give a simple assurance such as, “we will respect the laws on any host nation our navy visits”.

      That’s all he had to say. But he didn’t.

      That is not respecting of our laws and it’s not good enough.

      • This is not unusual. It would be near impossible for the US to allow another nation to dictate policy especially around defence matters. All the Ambassador was doiung was making this point clear. The US will not be changing anything as a result of NZ’s law on Nuclear weapons. However the reality is that it doesn’t need to as US surface warships no long have Nuclear weapons onboard.

        • Yes Mr Gosman, when the radiation needs cleaning up, you will get nominated by the number of down votes you get for your comment.

          You better run off and tell all your paid-troll, syruper mates to vote you up on this site or you will be at the front of the queue for radiation cleanup duties.

          All those who want Gosman to lead the nuclear waste cleanup crew, vote this post up, and Gosman’s down 🙂

  2. The underlying theme here is that National has never been comfortable with NZ nuclear free laws. Oh they went along with it, but that was because these laws had (and still have) a large majority support. National could not afford to alienate the electorate over this so they reluctantly shut their mouths and pretended to like it.
    With Key’s willingness to do back room deals with anyone offering a few pieces of eight, it is entirely possible that National is trying to weaken the legislation by stealth and make nuclear free into something that its sleepy hobbit supporters hate, rather than like. National’s philosophy is that if there is an existing law that you hate, but you are too chicken to openly tackle, then you undermine it and dilute it by regular amendments until it is virtually a dead duck and then bring in a new law “to tidy up all the anomalies” (which you caused yourself). Then you appear to be a sensible legislator instead of the ad hoc reactionary that you actually are.
    Of course the sleepy hobbits will swallow the lot, hook line and sinker. When National believes it has sufficiently undermined NZ nuclear free laws then it will introduce new ones that it says will be stronger, better and more relevant, but of course won’t be.
    I have seen how National operate over many years. Unfortunately Muddle Nu Ziland will react with their usual apathy.

  3. If the US sent a tanker, tender or amphibious landing vessel, among other non-combatant ships, it would obviate the need to formally abandon the “neither confirm or deny” policy. Moreover, the ambassador is clinging to a line that even the US Navy does not adhere to in every circumstance.

    Since the visit is a ceremonial “show the flag” exercise in celebration of the RNZN 75th anniversary, an event that will include warships from several nuclear armed states, it would seem reasonable for the US to opt for the non-combatant surface ship option by way of compromise. Once the designated ship is announced it will be easy for the government to independently ascertain its propulsion and weapons capability.

    Of course, that leaves room for protest against militarism, imperialism, and/or the US in particular. But as far as nukes are concerned, it really should not be an issue and can be resolved without infringing on NZ law.

    Incidentally, I found the interview a bit badgering. What exact did Ms. Owen expect the ambassador to say when she kept saying that a change in the US position was a “back down?” Had he been a bit more verbally adroit he could have responded by saying that US acceptance of the invitation would be in recognition of the very different state of NZ-US relations today as opposed to 30 years ago.

    Many here in NZ may not like the rapprochement (and I have concerns about it), but the hard reality is that with the Wellington and Washington agreements NZ has “returned to the fold” when it comes to its security ties with the US irrespective of the possible or theoretical presence of nukes on US grey hulls.

    It seems to me that it is this broader question–that of NZ now being closely tied to the US when it comes to security (military and intelligence) relations–that should be the core focus of concern.

    • That last bit is a pity.

      Over the last 20 years. Successive governments have run NZDF into the ground, largely to the sounds of cheers from the crowds. Now NZDF can’t do anything with out U.S help.

      We really should blame ourselves, the Aussies must be getting sick of us using all there expensive high end gear to get ready for deployments too.

      Our troops in Iraq are under U.S aircover, in there bases, using there vehicles and helicopters, our guys are just along for the ride (in a bloody war zone)

      Iv probably gone on about this enough, but when we decide to underfund NZDF, don’t be surprised that in the interests of a collective security that the U.S and Australians start picking up the slack.

    • but the hard reality is that with the Wellington and Washington agreements NZ has “returned to the fold” when it comes to its security ties with the US

      This viewpoint betrays it’s holder as a having a US centric bias.

      Rather, the hard reality is that the NZ people’s position hasn’t changed one single iota; no mandate was sought from, nor given by, the NZ people for any change in the arrangement set by the 4th Labour Govt.

      Instead, we have a dishonest Government, specifically an unscrupulous prime minister, who hides from his own people whatever sycophantic and secret arrangement he may have made in private.

      • Richard:

        The rapprochement with the US began after 9/11 under the 5th Labour government, and the negotiations over the Wellington Agreement were conducted by it. The thawing of NZ-US relations is therefore not just National’s in the making, although it certainly has warmed it up considerably with the follow up Washington Agreement. Truth be told, neither Labour or National did much in the way of public consultations on the matter.

        I reject the accusation of US centric bias. I have written and spoken at length about my misgivings about closer NZ-US security ties. For a critical analysis that outlines the evolution of those ties, among other things, see this:

        • My point re bias is the implicit conclusion that NZ has shifted its policy to facilitate rapprochement.

          That it has “returned to the fold”, i.e. the wayward child has seen the error of its ways, amended its behaviour, whilst the “fold” [i.e. safe place] that it abandoned welcomes it back without having shifted its own stance.

          The language tells its own story.

          This plays into the US narrative, it fails to put up any evidence that NZ has changed its policy beyond the obvious reality that something has shifted, somewhere.

          My view is that the shift in policy has occurred, not due to any change in NZ’s anti-nuclear policy, but as reward for its willingness to cooperate in changes to intelligence and surveillance matters and its willingness to participate in US hegemony in the form of the TPPA.

          These are the concrete and real changes. I have yet to be directed toward any evidence of any change in our nuclear policies.

          • Richard:

            You are reading too much into that particular turn of phrase. It refers to restoring a semblance of what were ANZAC security ties, nothing more (no wayward child seeing the error of its ways, amending its behaviour and finding a safe place, etc.).

            I agree that the non-nuclear policy has not shifted. That is obvious. But what has shifted is NZ’s stance with regard to its international security alliances. It has made a conscious decision under two governments to seek a full restoration of security ties wit the US in spite of the non-nuclear stance and it has done so via the Wellington and Washington agreements. That is why the non-nuclear stance was referred to by then Secretary of State Clinton as a pebble in the road towards “normalisation” of relations.

            The reasons for this are driven by both sides. The US needed all the friends that it could find post 9/11 and the 5th Labour government was happy to oblige by opening discussion about an assortment of military-to-military ventures (most of which have not been publicly disclosed but which are significant). It also more closely integrated the work of its intelligence agencies with those of the US and other Western partners, as the Snowden revelations have now (partially) demonstrated.

            NZ could well have seen this as a means of gaining preferential treatment in the context of an FTA (as the Australians did), or an MTA such as TPPA. But it took two to tango and the US has been willing, within the limits of diplomatic face-saving, to shift its non-compromising stance regarding nukes.

            That is why sending a non-combat ship would obviate any discussion of nukes on board as it is patently ridiculous to ask about them when the vessel involved clearly has diesel propulsion and no weapons capability beyond small arms.

            I should note that there is no “US narrative” on NZ’s non-nuclear policy. Most people in the US have trouble finding NZ on a map, much less know about the 1985 NZ policy decision on nukes. That includes significant portions of the US political class. The “narrative,” such as it is, is a US State Dept. and US Navy line that does not even factor into how the other US military services view and interact with their NZDF counterparts. This has been repeatedly seen in places like Afghanistan and now Iraq. Nicky Hager’s book “Others Peoples Wars” spells it out in spades.

            As I said before, the more important question is the how and why of NZ’s now close security relationship with the Yanks, as it contradicts the supposed “independent and autonomous” foreign policy stance that NZ foreign policy elites continue to parrot as the linchpin of its approach to international affairs (and which I discuss at great length in the academic article I linked to in my previous comment).

            The bottom line is that by obsessing with “neither confirm or deny” the media diverts attention away from the larger issue and thereby helps prevent a more robust discussion about the nature of NZ’s security role and ties in the current and future global context.

            PS. On that last topic: I am not sure if you are aware of the multilateral military exercises that took place in the South Island the past month. It included US forces as well as those of other Pacific militaries. The troubling part of that exercise is that it was focused on quelling an insurrection in a hypothetical Pacific Island state and undertaking “peace-keeping” and “nation-building” operations once hostilities concluded. Part of the background to the exercise was “a loss of foreign investor confidence” resulting from the unrest.

            Given that the nature of most Pacific Islands states as somewhat less than democratic, this amounts to backing authoritarians against their opposition. Plus, since when is restoring foreign investor confidence part of the NZDF mission or part of our security alliance commitments?

            That no one in the media made a single mention of the political conditions that were the basis for the exercise tells much about their lapdog disposition and their penchant to not see the forest for the trees.

  4. The bombing of The Rainbow Warrior was an act of Terrorism before the word had got any global media traction.

    Our Nuclear Free legislation showed we had grown up, as a nation.

    Any changes to that legislation would be like watching a beloved relative develop Alzheimer’s.

    And the American Ambassador is a former corporate, still current, wanker.

    PS: Facebook isn’t letting me log on 🙁

    • Yes – agree Angela wholeheartedly.

      The despicable act of terrorism on NZ soil perpetrated by the French no less, as punishment for NZ standing up to the French and telling them to go test your bombs in the Mediterranean Sea, not the French colonies in the Pacific Ocean. Liberte. Egalite. Fraternite is a two-way concept, not a blueprint for state-sponsored terror in our backyard.

      The French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior and state sanctioned collateral murder is all part of the same narrative about “confirm deny nuclear or not’. I paddled a boat out to intercept the US ship Truxton and I remember seeing a little banner that said “Truck off Fuxton!”. That was then, this is now. Because, we had seen the French off out of our neck of the woods with their nuclear waste, and we didn’t want to smell the uranium on the breaths from US sea captains sailing their ships here.

      Now we have joined the club, the US club and they can ride roughshod over our democratically sanctioned laws and treat our nuclear sovereignty like dunny paper. Well come out now John Key. Tell us that the nuclear confirm or deny policy is National Party policy (like it was under the Gone by Lunchtime Brash years).

      Tell us now Mr Key without Crosby Textor spinning their turd-polishing, glitter-covered prevaricating, weasel-worded bullshit in your ears that New Zealand is now NOT NUCLEAR-FREE. And that the NUCLEAR-FREE POLICY, is gone NOW.

      Brash should have said “Gone by lunchtime the day that a US Ship sails into NZ waters.”

      The revolution was complete:George Orwell said it best in Animal Farm

      ” Like all of Napoleon’s speeches, it was short and to the point. He too, he said, was happy that the period of misunderstanding was at an end. For a long time there had been rumours — circulated, he had reason to think, by some malignant enemy — that there was something subversive and even revolutionary in the outlook of himself and his colleagues. They had been credited with attempting to stir up rebellion among the animals on neighbouring farms. Nothing could be further from the truth! Their sole wish, now and in the past, was to live at peace and in normal business relations with their neighbours. This farm which he had the honour to control, he added, was a co-operative enterprise. The title-deeds, which were in his own possession, were owned by the pigs jointly …….

      …..Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

  5. If the Americans won’t confirm or deny their ships are either nuclear powered or carrying nuclear weapons, then the answer to them coming here should be quite simple!

    In that case, we treat them as being nuclear vessels in some form or other, so no entry to NZ harbours or ports!

    Any strong, respectful, half decent PM would take that stand, thereby enforcing our non negotiable laws on the issue. However as far as that point is concerned ….. ???!!!

  6. It would appear that our PM thinks open source documentation sufficient to indicate the validity of whether a visiting ship carried nukes. You might think an NZ politician carries a certain degree of care to the upholding of NZ law. Keys attitude towards process is beginning to fray. He is looking more dictator like by the day. Arrogant.

    The reason he is like this may be that he reflects the polling his team rely upon. If so it reflects poorly upon the psche of the NZ electorate.

  7. It was ironic President Obama shook Key’s hands at a Nuclear Free conference a few years back given Key and National would stop New Zealand being nuclear free in a heart beat if they could get away with it.

    (Almost as ironic as Prime Minister Jim Bolger greeting Nelson Mandela in New Zealand)

    • It would have been even more ironic if John Key had shaken hands with Nelson Mandela. Madiba’s question would have been:

      “What was your view on the 1981 Springbok Tour Mr Key?”

      The answer would have gone something like this, phonetic, and not yet translated from Transkey to Transakei:

      “I jst wnt to the changn shids to mutt the lads and shirk hunds wif thm – they seemed allwite to me”


  8. Well spotted, Frank, and a clear indication that Key and his mates in Washington are trying to pull a swifty on us. The Nats don’t do radical changes, they engage in undermining and subtle changes over a period of time.

    Chip away at the nuke free laws until it is meaningless, then remove it altogether. We’ve seen this modus operandi before. It’s happening again.

Comments are closed.