U.S. Ambassador William McCormick said Friday any change in New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy, a major irritant in relations with the United States, was up to New Zealand. McCormick said he wasn't about to try and force the government to change its policy. "I'm not here as an agent of the U.S. government to change your thinking (about) a policy that's been carved into law for the last 20 years. I'm not here to change that," he said.
U.S.-New-Zealand relations have been strained since 1985, when New Zealand banned nuclear weapons and nuclear-power warships from its territory. That prompted Washington to cut defense ties with Wellington and expel it from a defense pact and some critics say it has held up a free trade deal between the two nations.
McCormick said it was time to move forward on the issue.
After 20 years of "skirting around" the issue, "let's find a way to get this thing resolved in a way that will be positive to both of us," the newly appointed ambassador told reporters at his first press conference since presenting his credentials.
It is important to find areas where the two nations can work together, he said.
The U.S. sees the anti-nuclear policy as a potential impediment to its worldwide military operations and a precedent it hopes no other nation will adopt, part of its reason for a tough attitude toward New Zealand.
The ambassador insisted that the policy played no part in the lack of a free trade deal, despite staunch U.S. ally and near neighbor Australia having one.
He said any trade deal the United States entered into had to demonstrate "substantive benefits" and "we want to hear from the New Zealand government as to what the substantive benefits are going to be."
Commenting on New Zealand's refusal to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2002, McCormick said it is "always disappointing" when a "freedom-loving nation doesn't participate in something that's so important."
The Clark government refused to take part in the invasion when the United Nations opposed the plan, the AP says.
It later provided about 100 troops to assist U.N. reconstruction efforts in southern Iraq around the city of Basra.