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The world is more dangerous now, not safer

DISCUSSIONS | June 07, 2006

Ivor Wilkins, New Zealand

1984 Nieman fellow; originally from South Africa, now living in New Zealand

I have lived in New Zealand for the past 20 years. In dealing with questions of perception, one is necessarily driven into generalisations and the danger of causing offense. However, as a first generalisation it would be safe to assert that the past several years have seen New Zealand perceptions of America deteriorate rather than improve.

A distinction needs to be made between feelings towards the Bush administration and the American people, who are known through personal encounters to be generous, thoughtful, articulate and principled. But, as we know, those distinctions are often blurred.

Formal New Zealand relations with America have been strained for many years because of New Zealand's firm anti-nuclear stance. However, that has not stopped New Zealand from being a reliable ally of the West on major issues and, despite its limited resources and size, New Zealand has always provided troops and support in conflicts like the Falklands War, Afghanistan and so on. This is part of a long tradition stretching back to the world wars.

The reaction here to the 9/11 outrage was of overwhelming sympathy and support for the US. In the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, New Zealand was supportive and gained recognition for its role there from the Bush administration.

However, the New Zealand government refused to take part in the invasion of Iraq, although it has lent support in the post-invasion rebuilding efforts. The general perception here of Iraq is that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair were intent on a war and would let nothing stand in their way. Certainly, there was general outrage at the manipulation of information (and, sadly, the generally unquestioning support they received in this from the mainstream media).

The virtually nightly sight of President Bush smirking and gloating in the early stages of the invasion was sickening for many observers, who saw absolutely no justification for this adventure. Certainly, President Bush's arrogance in ignoring the UN and creating an entirely new category of war – the pre-emptive notion based on spurious and unproven 'threats' – was seen as totally unacceptable. 

This tendency to ignore multilateral approaches and forums was repeated in matters like the environment (Kyoto) and trade.

The revelations about treatment of prisoners and detainees have further horrified New Zealanders and inspired great unease at the erosion of human rights and the rule of law.

Where the lines of distinction between the Bush Administration and the American people become blurred is that, from here at least, there seemed plenty of evidence to be extremely concerned about the direction America was taking when the mid-term elections took place. 

Yet, the Republican Party, which gained access to the White House by the smallest possible margin (and some still question the legitimacy of the Florida result) increased its majority in the mid-term elections. The 'people' clearly supported what was happening in their name.

Of course, there has long been a perception abroad that America is insular by nature and that Americans care little and know less about what happens outside their borders. This has not been dispelled by recent reports of surveys that showed the majority of respondents had no idea where Iraq was on a map.

Despite President Bush's triumphal "Top Gun" arrival on the aircraft carrier to declare "Mission Accomplished" over Iraq, the situation has since deteriorated. There might be a measure of satisfaction at the current discomfort of  the Administration, but there is unease about the sabre-rattling towards Iran. America's apparent willingness to tread the diplomatic path with Iran is seen more as a result of exhaustion over Iraq than a change of heart. Revelations of a secret plan for strategic strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities (including the possible use of nuclear weapons to do so) are seen as entirely credible and in line with the natural hawkish inclinations of the administration.

President Bush's declaration of war against terror post 9/11 received general support in New Zealand at the time. However, American foreign policy in the Middle East in particular appears to have done little to reduce terrorism. If anything, the U.S. 'crusade' appears to have generated so much hostility that it has served as a recruiting drive for extremists. The general belief here is that the world, in short, has become not a safer place, but a more dangerous one.

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