ANZUS: 'our richest prize' or 'that scrap of paper'? Ken Ross examines the intellectual underpinnings of New Zealand's search for a comfortable relationship with the United States.

Author:Ross, Ken
Position:Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty - Essay

Maybe 2016 will prompt a 'high noon' moment for the old ANZUS triangle between the United States, Australia and New Zealand which dominated New Zealand's approach to national security for four decades. Several episodes illustrate a search that has been nearly as elusive as that for Lewis Carroll's Snark--New Zealand's 'comfortable relationship' with Washington. Victoria University of Wellington history professor Fred Wood's impressive scholarship was important in framing the relationship intellectually, as was Secretary of Foreign Affairs Frank Corner's adroit diplomacy. Norman Kirk's, David Lange's and Helen Clark's prime ministerial diplomacy with the United States played a significant role in the evolution of the relationship.


'Some of the most valuable research consists in creative thinking about facts which are tolerably well known' (Fred Wood, 1949) (1)

'[Fred Wood] devoted meticulous scholarly care towards tracing every small move towards self-determination as exemplified by New Zealand's quest for an independent foreign policy' (Peter Munz, 1969) (2)

It is 46 years since our fine intellects last sat with their counterparts in Washington and Canberra mulling the ANZUS triangle. February 1970 had them in Canberra at a conference to 'consider Australian--New Zealand--United States relations and the common problems which the three ANZUS countries might expect to face'. The resultant book, Asia and the Pacific in the 1970s (1971), is still an important read as it canvasses the core issues today of that complex of the three bilateral relationships plus the triangular one.

That Canberra get-together was fourteen years prior to David Lange, Helen Clark and their friends taking charge in Wellington. And, nearly three years before Norman Kirk became prime minister. At the conference Bruce Brown, then the NZIIA's director, examined 'the question of nuclear weapons, which most worries the critics of New Zealand's alignment, in the context of the ANZUS treaty and especially of New Zealand-Australian relations'. (3) Alexander MacLeod, then the editor of the New Zealand Listener, warned 'I do not think we can too readily assume that New Zealand's commitment to ANZUS is entirely without restraints and inhibitions'. (4)

Brown and MacLeod suggest credibly that in early 1970 the intellectual lights for ANZUS were already dimming in New Zealand, well before Bob Hawke pulled stumps in March 1985 on that year's ANZUS Council meeting, which he was to host mid-year.

This article arises from my recent research which attempts to throw light on the question: was the ANZUS treaty 'our richest prize' (5), or just 'that scrap of paper', in the triangular relationship. I found that Fred Wood emerges as our most astute 'home-grown' scholar of ANZUS and his brightest-ever student, Frank Corner, to be the smartest Kiwi ball-player on the ANZUS playground. Most of the facts are in Wood's phrase 'tolerably well known'. Several new books have washed up from far-away shores containing new insights worth mention here.

Important scholarship

Wood was the senior history professor at Victoria University in Wellington from 1936 to 1969. His ANZUS scholarship began with his 1953 International Affairs article--'The ANZAC dilemma' --and concluded with book chapters in 1972 and 1977, which tidied up his ANZUS story-telling. (6) His 1967 lecture, 'New Zealand and the Big Powers: Can a Small Nation Have a Mind of its Own?', is the gold standard for understanding ANZUS' symbolic status for New Zealanders of the Second World War generation. Wood explained:

That scrap of paper, ANZUS, is important not because of detailed promises written upon it, but because it marked the success of persistent efforts, during and after the war, to build up 'a relationship of confidence and common purpose between the United States, Australia and New Zealand'. (7) Wood told us then:

If we need American protection, it will be found not by insistence on the terms of ANZUS but by fostering that 'relationship of confidence and common purpose'. In terms of diplomacy, that means that the main security for New Zealand lies in continuous, active, knowledgeable, cooperative but independent minded association with the United States aimed, in classical phrase, about good diplomacy, 'to harmonise...

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