New Zealand rethought its foreign relations in the final third of the 20th century. The Vietnam War triggered questions about ties with the US. Anti-nuclear sentiment grew, prompted by Pacific nuclear testing and the 1985 Rainbow Warrior bombing. New Zealand soon became nuclear-free, turning its armed forces towards international peacekeeping and regional security.
- ‘We can take pride ... in being nuclear free and in having the strength and independence not to send our young people off to fight in unjust wars.’
- Helen Clark, New Zealand Prime Minister, 2005
British & US ties
New Zealand had strong cultural and economic ties with Britain at the start of the 1960s. The country had also been buddies with the United States in the Anzus defence treaty for almost a decade. Both these relationships would soon come under strain.
Vietnam War – weakening support for the US
Maintaining Anzus drew New Zealand into the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War (1959–75). This war was the only conflict in the century in which New Zealand did not fight alongside British forces.
Growing protests challenged New Zealand’s ties with ‘Uncle Sam’ (the US), and Prime Minister Keith Holyoake (1904–83) was criticised for supporting the war.
A blow from Britain
New Zealand’s relationship with Britain weakened when the ‘mother country’ joined the European Economic Union in 1973. New Zealand lost its guaranteed export market, but the country retained links with Britain, and the Queen remained head of state.
From the 1970s, New Zealanders became increasingly anti-nuclear. Nuclear testing in the Pacific by Britain, the US, and France upset many people here. Environmental protests gathered increasing political support.
The 1985 bombing of Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior by French government agents galvanised the anti-nuclear movement. New Zealand became officially nuclear-free 2 years later. The US reacted to the move by suspending its Anzus obligations to this country.
Foreign relations – a new focus
Increasingly, New Zealand redirected its foreign relations, focusing more on trade, regional security, and environmental concerns.
The country didn’t send troops to the 1990–91 Gulf War but did commit forces to United Nations peacekeeping activities.