OPINION: The United States now counts us back among the friends and allies it can rely on.
That is the message from John Key’s trip to Washington, which has been a balancing act between New Zealand’s desire to capitalise on our renewed friendship with the United States while shoring up our credentials as an independent voice on the international stage.
Key leaves Washington today after meeting President Barack Obama overnight NZ time.
During his visit he has been thrust into the middle of the big international story unfolding over Iraq.
The prime minister was scheduled to meet US Secretary of State John Kerry just as Obama delivered a speech to the American people outlining his plans for Iraq as that country is plunged into fresh bloodshed and crisis.
Mindful of the deep scars left by the decade-long war in Afghanistan, Obama repeatedly gave an assurance that US troops would not be returned to a combat role in Iraq.
But he announced the deployment of 300 special miliary advisers in Iraq and dispatched Kerry on an international mission to build support for any step up in the US response, which could include air strikes.
Kerry’s first press conference after the president’s announcement was with Key at his side, after they emerged from their meeting.
It was not surprising then that Kerry used the opening minutes of their press conference to talk to the president’s Iraq plan.
But it also put Key on the spot when Kerry was asked what support the US might expect from New Zealand over the US response.
Kerry’s response was unequivocal.
‘‘We know that our friends – we don’t have to ask – this is one where we know that New Zealand stands with us.’’
That statement risked undoing some of Key’s careful messaging ahead of the meeting, where he was at pains to stress that as a small country that runs an independent foreign policy New Zealand would take its lead from the United Nations Security Council.
Which is just what you would expect from a country that is embroiled in a bitter contest for one of two non-permanent seats on the Council.
Asked about that support, Key chose his words cautiously to state that New Zealand was fully supportive of what was a ‘‘very carefully and considered process for assessing what is best in terms of the next steps for Iraq’’ and added that New Zealand would of course ‘‘lend a hand where appropriate’’ – which was quickly defined as $500,000 in aid for displaced persons.
After the presser, Key was less certain about a Security Council imprimatur on any further action, such as air strikes.
‘‘That’s something we would have to take advice on, consider the issues and the process they are going through.’’ But he added that the New Zealand position ‘‘is always to look for a sanction solution and look to the security council to show leadership,’’ he said.
But Key also stressed that it was very different to the 2003 war which New Zealand opposed.
‘‘President Obama is a senator that was opposed to and voted against the Iraq war; he’s not a guy that’s looking to take America back into some other war; in the end he is going to fight tooth and nail I think to try and find a way that is a diplomatic way through this problem.’’
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