Nuclear Weapons

In Warming US-NZ Relations, Outdated Nuclear Policy Remains Unnecessary Irritant

09.23.12 | 7 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta meets with New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman, in a first step to normalize relations between the two countries nearly 30 years after the U.S. punished New Zealand for its ban on nuclear weapons.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Hat tip to the Obama administration for doing the right and honorable thing: breaking with outdated Reagan administration policy and sending Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to New Zealand and ease restrictions on New Zealand naval visits to U.S. military bases.

The move shows that Washington after nearly 30 years of punishing the small South Pacific nation for its ban against nuclear weapons may finally have come to its senses and decided to end the vendetta in the interest of more important issues.

The New Zealand defense minister made it quite clear that the move does not mean a change to New Zealand’s policy of denying nuclear warships access to its harbors. “New Zealand has made it very clear that the policy remains unchanged and will remain unchanged.”

Whether (or how soon) the move will result in a resumption of U.S. naval visits to New Zealand remains to be seen. The U.S. Navy still has two policies that would appear to prevent this. One is a “one-fleet” policy that holds that if any U.S. ships are restricted from an area, it will refrain from sending any ships there. The other is the Neither Confirm Nor Deny Policy (NCND), which prohibits disclosing if a warship carries nuclear weapons or not, a leftover from the Cold War when stuff like that was important.

These policies leave an irritant in place that doesn’t need to be there. It seems that both countries can makes modifications to their policies to allow normal military relations to resume.

Cold War Policy in Need of Change

Panetta’s visit to New Zealand is the first by a U.S. defense secretary in 30 years since the gong ho nuclear policy of the Reagan administration threw New Zealand out of the Australia-New Zealand-US (ANZUS) alliance for refusing to accept visits by nuclear-armed warships to its ports. The treatment of New Zealand was intended as a warning to countries not to dare enforce their non-nuclear policies. As former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Leslie Gelb diplomatically put it in the New York Times at the time: “Unless we hold our allies’ feet to the fire over ship visits and nuclear deployments, one will run away and then the next.”

At the core of the dispute is the so-called Neither Confirm Nor Deny Policy (NCND), according to which the U.S. will not reveal – directly or indirectly – whether nuclear weapons are present on a warship, an aircraft, or on a base. The policy emerged in the 1950s as a way to counter anti-nuclear and left wing demonstrations in Europe during port visits. Later it was re-coined as a way to protect ships against terrorist attacks and to complicate Soviet military planning. Spin aside, the central objective was always to ensure unfettered access for U.S. warships to foreign ports – no matter the nuclear policy of the host country. (For a chronology of the NCND policy, see: The Neither Confirm Nor Deny Policy: Nuclear Diplomacy at Work).

During the Cold War, U.S. warships bristled with non-strategic nuclear weapons. Bombs, anti-submarine rockets, air-defense missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, depth bombs and torpedoes were continuously at sea onboard aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, supply ships and attack submarines. Every single day some of them sailed into foreign ports around the world. The deployment war part of a global posture against the Soviet Union, which also deployed non-strategic nuclear weapons on its fleet (Britain and France had similar postures).

The NCND was a brilliant diplomatic arrangement. The host country could have whatever nuclear policy it wanted and the United States could continue to visit its ports with nuclear-armed warships. The only problem with the NCND was that it put allied governments with non-nuclear policies in an unreasonable dilemma: one, reject the visit or ask the United States to deny that the ship carried nuclear weapons; or, two, turn a blind eye and accept that nuclear weapons come in on warships once in a while.

That dilemma is the dirty little secret of the NCND: It required not just that the United States was ambiguous about the weapons loadout, but also that the host country accepted ambiguity about the armament. For the host country to accept ambiguity was, of course, incompatible with a policy that prohibited nuclear weapons on its territory.

New Zealand was the first allied country that refused to accept that ambiguity. It did so in 1984 by adopting a law that prohibited access for nuclear-armed and nuclear-propelled vessels. The law did not demand that the United States confirm or deny whether there were nuclear weapons on the ships (that is a widespread misperception); it only required the New Zealand government in its own right to make a determination and announce its decision. But such an announcement was incompatible with the NCND, which required the host country to keep quiet about what it knew.

The USS Buchanan (DDG-14) arrives in Sydney, Australia, in March 1985 after it was barred from visiting New Zealand.

When the U.S. wanted to send a warship to New Zealand in the spring of 1985, it could have sent a warship that was not nuclear-capable (in fact, the News Zealand government asked the U.S. to do so, but it refused). But that would not have fully tested New Zealand’s adherence to the NCND. So the Reagan administration decided to send the guided missile destroyer USS Buchannan (DDG-14), which was equipped to carry nuclear ASROC missiles. This visit was to be followed by several other ships, some of which most likely carried nuclear weapons.

The New Zealand government turned down the request and the Reagan administration retaliated by throwing New Zealand out of the ANZUS alliance, curtailing intelligence sharing, and prohibiting New Zealand warships from visiting U.S. military and Cost Guard facilities in the region. In effect, the Reagan administration chose to sacrifice an ally in a part of the world where the military implications were limited to prevent the anti-nuclear “allergy” from spreading to other more vital parts of the world.

The strategy failed. In 1988, the nuclear port visits issue triggered an election in Denmark, and in 1990 the Swedish governing party decided to enforce Sweden’s ban against nuclear weapons on its territory after a study determined that U.S. warships routinely carried nuclear weapons into Swedish ports despite the ban.

Instead of a tool for protecting nuclear warships and ensuring allied security, the NCND policy became a lightening rod for political controversy and soured relations with U.S. allies all over the world. Whenever a nuclear-capable warship sailed into a foreign port on a “goodwill visit,” the thorny issue of whether it carried nuclear weapons and the host government being seen as turning a blind eye to violations of its own non-nuclear policy overshadowed the goodwill the U.S. and the host government were trying to demonstrate.

Today the policy continues even though it is hopelessly outdated and counterproductive. All non-strategic nuclear weapons were removed from U.S. surface ships and attack submarines by the first Bush administration in 1992 – effectively rendering the nuclear port visit issue moot. Moreover, the Clinton administration decided in 1994 to denuclearize all U.S. surface ships. The only remaining non-strategic naval nuclear weapon – the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile (TLAM/N) – has been stored on land since 1992 and is now being scrapped. (Russia has also offloaded its naval non-strategic nuclear weapons and Britain has completely eliminated its inventory.)

Restoration of Normal Relations is Possible

There is nothing that prevents restoration of normal U.S.-New Zealand military relations. Yet even though the non-strategic nuclear weapons have been offloaded and the U.S. surface fleet denuclearized, there are still Cold War warriors inside the bureaucracies who argue that it is necessary to maintain ambiguity about what U.S. warships carry and that no warship should sail where others are rejected.

Likewise, given that the U.S. surface fleet has been denuclearized and the last non-strategic naval nuclear weapon is being retired, there is no problem in the New Zealand government ascertaining – even publicly – that visiting U.S. warships do not carry nuclear weapons.

The policies that required nuclear ambiguity for warship visits to New Zealand are unnecessary and counterproductive and should be abolished. Hopefully they will not prevail for long. It is only a matter of time before U.S. warships begin visiting New Zealand again and Panetta must order the navy to stop pretending ambiguity where there is none: U.S. warships no longer carry nuclear weapons.

In the meantime, the U.S. embassy in Wellington might want to update its fact sheet on New Zealand-U.S. relations, which doesn’t seem to have caught up with Panetta’s visit:

“New Zealand’s legislation prohibiting visits of nuclear-powered ships continues to preclude a bilateral security alliance with the U.S. The legislation enjoys broad public and political support in New Zealand. The United States would welcome New Zealand’s reassessment of its legislation to permit that country’s return to full ANZUS cooperation.” (Emphasis added).

I think that ship has sailed.