When it doesn’t hurt to be ignored
Despite the photo opportunities Prime Minister John Key enjoyed at the White House, little progress has yet been made with the Americans on the important matters of defence and trade.
When it comes to whether our SAS forces will actually leave Afghanistan as planned next March, hints were dropped by Key that ‘‘no final decisions’’ had been made – thus leaving the door open for a further extension.
Later, Key invoked the Norway massacre to argue that because terrorism can evidently happen anywhere, this serves to justify our military presence in Afghanistan.
How a far right Christian fundamentalist in Norway might conceivably be deterred by our forces fighting against jihadists in Kabul was left unexplained.
Before and after Key’s visit, it has been hard to identify any tangible benefits New Zealand is earning from its support for the American military effort in Afghanistan.
On the trade front, we are certainly not winning any favours. Currently, the multi-member Trans Pacific Partnership is the closest thing to a free trade deal with the United States that New Zealand is ever likely to achieve – and yet it, too, seems more of a pipedream than a reality.
At best, the nations involved will have agreed by year’s end merely to keep on talking, rather than sign any actual commitments.
What then did Key earn from his abbreviated half-hour meeting with President Barack Obama? Nothing of substance, it would seem.
Apparently, a small contingent of American Marines will arrive here next year to mark the 70th anniversary of the Marines’ arrival in New Zealand during World War II.
However, the Boston Globe noted that in Key’s meeting with Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, New Zealand had also invited the Coast Guard to send a ship to these celebrations.
Obviously, any American ship visit would carry vast symbolic weight in New Zealand, and be widely read as a sign that the Anzus dispute had been resolved, on our terms.
Perhaps that explains why the Americans were reportedly surprised when Key issued the Coast Guard ship invitation, and why they have politely declined to respond, so far.
As always, the Americans have bigger fish to fry. To date, Obama has been unable to get even the trade deals he inherited from the George W Bush administration through Congress.
Even if Obama ever did negotiate a Trans Pacific Partnership deal in future, his chances of getting it ratified by Congress (in the face of Republican opposition) seem almost non-existent. We should perhaps be counting our blessings on that score. Already, several American farm states have called for the Trans Pacific Partnership to exclude trade in dairy produce from such a deal, thus denying New Zealand any greater market access for one of the key elements in our export trade.
At the same time, New Zealand will be under pressure from the American negotiators and their pharmaceutical industry lobbyists to alter or scrap the way our Pharmac agency purchases drugs cheaply for our health system.
Any future Trans Pacific Partnership ‘‘free trade’’ deal may well mean costlier drugs for sick New Zealanders.
In the circumstances, being virtually ignored and patronised by the Americans – Obama kept calling our PM ‘‘John Keys’’ – may well be better than looming large on their policy radar.
Gordon Campbell is an experienced political journalist and columnist who has written for The Listener and Scoop.