Playing politics on nuclear issue

GORDON CAMPBELL
Last updated 12:08 14/06/2012

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Several major news stories arose last week.

Leading the way was the backdown by Education Minister Hekia Parata over the plan to increase class sizes, preceded by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett's attempt to take the media heat off Parata by talking vaguely about restricting the rights of the criminal underclass to reproduce.

There was also the Queen's diamond jubilee celebrations and the related honours list, which contained the usual surprises about who had chosen to accept the baubles of royalty.

This year, the knighthood of Sir Michael Cullen raised a few eyebrows - including perhaps those of his wife, who reportedly has no desire to be referred to as Lady Cullen.

Almost lost in the traffic was a milestone in New Zealand's history: the 25th anniversary of our Nuclear Non-Proliferation legislation. Judging by an informal newspaper poll on the subject, a majority of respondents still believe our non-nuclear stance is a significant part of who we are as a nation.

New Zealand's national identity is very much based on our sense of virtuous purity.

If only people were more like us. If only the world was as willing as we are to say "No" to nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, it's more fantasy than fact.

The reason we got away with saying "No" to nuclear weapons was not because we were a fearless example of moral virtue.

It was because we are remote and virtually irrelevant to global conflicts and because the Americans felt that our continued willingness to provide them with secret intelligence - via the Waihopai base and our readiness to spy on our Pacific neighbours - was more important than the public spat over ship visits.

A couple of years ago, Prime Minister John Key repeated (to a Washington conference on nuclear non-proliferation) the theme of New Zealand being an example to the rest of the world on nuclear issues.

Why, on balance, is this something of a fantasy?

Well, it is a matter of public record that both the United States and New Zealand have either voted against or abstained from international moves to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone - with us blaming "poor process" and a "lack of consultation" and other diplomatic weasel words for our reluctance.

The underlying reason is that such moves have been seen as a tactic to highlight the fact that Israel has a large nuclear arsenal. In other words, New Zealand has been as willing as anyone else to play politics with the issues of nuclear proliferation and disarmament. The reality is that the West routinely picks and chooses the countries at whom it will wave the non-proliferation stick. (It quietly tolerates a nuclear Pakistan and a nuclear Israel.)

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One can only applaud the steps by the Obama administration in pursuing reductions in the size of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals, even if technological advances probably render a smaller arsenal no less potent.

The riskier prospect is that the noble cause of non-proliferation could soon be invoked to justify military action against Iran.

If so, the biggest threat to global security may not be nuclear terrorism, but the selective morality of the non-proliferation club itself. New Zealand appears more than willing to be a happy cheerleader.

- Kapiti Observer

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