'Real hard yakka' for US to overshadow PM's face time

17:00, Jul 15 2011

There used to be a time when New Zealand prime ministers weren't welcome at the White House.

The thaw that began under Republican President George W Bush and gained impetus under the Obama Administration changed all that. But for all our newfound mateship, it's still not that easy to get a meeting at the White House. It's not because Washington still holds a grudge – we're just not that important.

We are not even above a bit of diplomatic pleading, as revealed by one of the thousands of cables that fly between Washington and the United States Embassy in Wellington each year.

The Wikileaked cable detailed how Prime Minister John Key used a meeting with US officials to personally press for a mid-2010 visit to the White House.

"He recounted the conversations at Apec which led him to believe he had a firm invitation from POTUS [the president of the US] for a separate bilateral visit in the first half of 2010," the cable states.

"Expectations in New Zealand were set, Key said, and the matter potentially could turn into a political embarrassment for him."


It goes on to note that Mr Key had let it be known that "his June schedule was `still empty"'. US assistant secretary of State Kurt Campbell later enthused that Mr Key and President Barack Obama had "really hit it off" at the Nuclear Security Summit early in 2010. But even that wasn't enough for the Americans to accommodate his June request.

It would have been unthinkable, however, for the Americans not to squeeze Mr Key into the Oval Office at least once during National's first term in power.

The rhetoric of recent years has been about a new warmth in the relationship, which for years was blighted by the stand-off over New Zealand's anti-nuclear legislation. While the legislation remains, the other longstanding irritant – US refusal to train or exercise alongside Kiwi troops – was quietly relaxed several years ago, though both governments refused to talk about it publicly till this year.

Intelligence ties have also been restored, returning the relationship to near normality compared with the nuclear-free inspired chill of the 1980s and 1990s.

So the fact that a White House visit hasn't happened till now is more to do with the extraordinary events that have marked Mr Obama's first term in office than a deliberate snub or oversight.

The US sub-prime crisis, which precipitated the global financial crisis, continues to reverberate around the world. And as Mr Key makes his preparations to leave Monday for the White House meeting, US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke is warning that America stands on the brink of "a huge financial calamity" if Mr Obama and his Republican opponents fail to agree on a budget deal allowing the federal debt ceiling to be raised.

The world's most powerful economy now faces a credit downgrade unless a deal can be done on the budget before the government's borrowing authority runs out on August 2.

Against that backdrop, it's not just difficult for New Zealand to get to the top of the president's dance card – it makes the job of selling our top trade priority – a Trans-Pacific Partnership deal linking countries including the US, New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, Chile, Peru and Malaysia – heavy weather as well.

UNDERSCORING the case for the TPP is Mr Key's priority during his week-long trip to the States and meeting with Mr Obama on Saturday (NZ time).

Mr Key is confident that Mr Obama still has the TPP high in his sights but, as Trade Negotiations Minister Tim Groser admits, it's a tough ask getting to the president's's ear at a time of such high stakes in Washington.

"Let's be absolutely clear about this, it is real hard yakka in Washington at the moment. Everything is overshadowed by this massive unresolved issue of the fiscal cap."

Mr Key says pressing the case for the TPP is the "practical" side to his five-day visit.

Officials stress that it is largely a working visit and suggest there is nothing in the mould of last year's Wellington Declaration to sprinkle the trip with the sort of symbolism that was afforded US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to New Zealand last year.

The powerhouse lineup of administration officials Mr Key is scheduled to meet underscore his intention to make the most of the visit as a working one. They include Dr Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and US Trade Representative Ron Kirk, among others.

He will make side trips to Los Angeles, where he will dine with Warner Brothers executives, and Silicon Valley, where he will meet with Facebook and Google executives.

But the trip may not be entirely without symbolism; there are understood to have been discussions, for instance, about sending a US marine contingent to New Zealand next year to mark the 70th anniversary of US marines arriving in New Zealand during World War II.

Should that visit include joint exercises or training with New Zealand troops it would be hugely significant. Whether those plans will have been tied down in time for Mr Key's visit is yet to be confirmed. Whether they will even be discussed during the Oval Office meeting remains to be seen.

Both leaders will have to gallop through their allotted 30-to-40 minutes if they want to cover off everything on the agenda – including Afghanistan, New Zealand's perspective on the rise of China in the Pacific, intelligence sharing and the TPP – before they emerge to deliver a short statement each.

But Mr Key will almost certainly deliver the obligatory invitation for the US president to visit – and will no doubt stress that his door is always open.

The Dominion Post