In several speeches in Washington last year, Former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell emphasized that a demonstration of US commitment to the Asia-Pacific was to “physically show up” for bilateral and multilateral dialogues. Hillary Clinton embodied that policy when she became the most widely traveled Secretary of State in US history. Similarly, the New Zealand government – and industry – has continued to show its commitment to US strategic, cultural and political ties particularly since the signing of the Wellington Declaration in 2010. As a Future Partner, I attended the US-NZ Council Pacific Partnership Forum held in Washington, DC, May 19 to 21, an example of an event that builds understanding between the two nations. Because the US and NZ have a multi-faceted relationship, direct and open dialogues such as the latest Partnership Forum that involve multiple sectors and actors continue to be the best way to move the relationship forward in the interests of both states and peoples. To exercise ‘smart power,’ states should take advantage of grassroots innovation and incorporate open forums to inform foreign policy.
In supporting the bilateral United States-New Zealand relationship, ministers, secretaries and other government officials have made no stranger of each others’ countries over the last several years. Former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano were a few high profile visitors to NZ. In return, Prime Minister John Key, Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully, and Minister of Defence Jonathan Coleman have visited the US. Those visits culminated in the signing of the Wellington and Washington Declarations strengthening strategic and political relations, and the signing of joint statements related to immigration, human trafficking and border security. While in Washington last week for the Forum, Minister McCully met with US Secretary of State John Kerry in a productive discussion that included the Middle East peace process, and the New Zealand Treasury team met with their American counterparts at the Department of Treasury.
A recurring message throughout the Partnership Forum was that while New Zealand and the United States once had strong differences in security policy, now the relationship is “excellent” and seemingly better than ever. While the contents of this statement were not disputed, the desire to reminisce about the bad times in the relationship engendered negative reactions from US Ambassador David Huebner and several New Zealand officials.
In a speech to Future Partners, Ambassador Huebner called on the new generation of leaders to be innovative and to move past old rhetoric. Former and current bureaucrats such as Stephen Jacobi and John Allen however were quick to remind Huebner that the ‘old guard’ has played a pivotal role in reshaping the bilateral relationship and remains a critical part of stable relations. Without understanding at least parts of the shared history of the US and NZ, one would not be able to appreciate the ostensibly open dialogue as well as playful banter that currently occurs. Future Partners from both NZ and the US were strong participants of the Forum, with at least one delegate causing a stir with her challenge of mainstream views of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
For the bilateral relationship, perhaps more valuable than the policy talk at the Forum was the people-to-people exchange. About half of the forty Future Partners delegates selected were former Fulbright Scholars. The Fulbright Program, university study abroad programs, People to People, and a multitude of other education and sports-related exchanges continue to have a major impact. Between the US and NZ, soft power is a much more valuable tool for both sides to build mutual understanding from the bottom up.
International relations can be about more than states as actors if individuals and businesses are given an equitable platform to exchange ideas and opinions alongside government. As an exercise that includes all sectors, the US-NZ Pacific Partnership Forum enables government officials, industry and even young professionals to meet with their international colleagues. While the issues of sustainability and resilience were discussed, missing from this year’s Forum agenda were topics of collaboration on mitigating Climate Change and additional development topics related to renewable energy in the Pacific. With the next Forum to take place in New Zealand, one hopes that the event continues the trend of being an open dialogue that enables participants to shape ‘what’s next’ for US-NZ relations.