An interview with Larry Ross
JENNIFER RAMSAY: New Zealand's Nuclear Weapon Free Zone has been held up as an example around the world.
LARRY ROSS: The campaign has different elements in it. From the beginning, it was designed to make New Zealand a NWFZ, with a concrete alternative foreign policy. We wanted New Zealand to base its foreign and defence policies on international peacemaking, and related services that would be valued by other states like Switzerland, Sweden, and Austria. We reasoned that if other states could become valued for their neutrality, why not make New Zealand the neutral peacemaker of the South Pacific? If you're serious about doing something and Canada would like to revert to its tradition as peacemaker-- RAMSAY: Canada's no peacemaker, despite what you hear.
ROSS: We build on indications in the past, and we magnify the good things, even if we're working with a small chunk. One reason why the peace movement doesn't get anywhere is because they're always protesting and they're never creating, never offering constructive alternatives. They're turning off the population that wants a lullaby and a nice story. So we're giving them a nice story and a creative outlet for them to do something constructive, rather than follow the Americans into the nuclear funeral parlor, as the Canadians are now doing with their White Paper which signifies the Ramboization of Canadian defence thinking. They've abandoned diplomacy, the part of the Canadian tradition that sees in peacemaking initiatives some hope for the future, and some hope to preserve Canadian sovereignty against a takeover by the Americans. That White Paper signifies a complete takeover, not only of American defence installations, but a subjugation of Canada and Canadian interests.
I find a lot of Canadians are sort of "Well, sorry , there's nothing much we can do, no we can't do this, oh me oh my.." Of course if Kiwis can do it Canadians can do it! Canadians have to be vitalized and have more faith in themselves-- faith in the idea that there is something worth doing, rather than simply protesting in a relaxed way. They should use their wisdom, their dynamism and sobriety -- they have far more than south of the border -- to assist their southern neighbor out of its trouble.
RAMSAY: Well, large numbers of Canadians are apathetic. On one hand we think it's possible to create a NWFZ, but there's still a lunatic government south of the border.
ROSS: I'll be going to the States soon. I'll be selling the U.S. peace movement the idea of supporting Canadian peace initiatives for a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. They love New Zealand's Nuclear Free Zone. A lot of U.S. people are writing to the papers and to the Prime Minister in New Zealand applauding the stand. The same flow could be directed toward Canadian media, and politicians, and to the New Democratic Party. The NDP needs to have its backbone strengthened, I've found. They've got be encouraged to stick with it.
RAMSAY: Withdrawing from NATO, you mean?
ROSS: Yes, of course withdraw from NATO, but do it in such a way that the U.S. will go along with you and realize it's in their interests to have a buffer zone. Expanding nuclear free zones reduces battlefields and creates conditions for more serious disarmament by the major nuclear powers. It also has a tendency to roll back nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles to the countries of origin, making it less likely that nuclear powers will actually wage nuclear war. That's where the Canadian buffer zone comes into effect and why Canada will have to stand firm and say this is what it wants-- that this is the way we're going to do it because we are a sovereign state.
RAMSAY: We've seen what happened to other nations that tried to stand up to the U.S. Belau stood up time after time, after firebombing, after assassination and said no, but eventually buckled under. How did New Zealand stand up to the pressure?
ROSS: It stood up because the people had been well educated on nuclear issues. We had done extensive lecture tours, we imported people like Helen Caldicott to give the facts, we got good coverage in the media. The public had a reasonably continuous stream of information, so they were reassured that nuclear free was good for New Zealand and good for the world. At the same time, the French decided to blow up the Rainbow Warrior, and murder somebody -- and that radicalized the public as well. It made New Zealanders realize that the nuclear powers were capable of this kind of atrocity against a fellow Western state. The bombing was against New Zealand as much as against Greenpeace. The message got through that it was a flagrant violation and attack on New Zealand, because France (in collaboration with the United States and Britain) saw her freedom to conduct nuclear warfare impinged by New Zealand's position, and by Greenpeace.
They all want to preserve their freedom to wage war where and when they want, thus they need bases, they need access to ports, and they want client allies who will agree to this. The people saw that ANZUS was not a defence pact any longer, it was a nuclear suicide pact. We had been discussing this in depth since 1981, and showing the facts. It was always sold to us by our own military and our foreign affairs department as our insurance policy so the U.S. would come to our aid if we were ever attacked. We showed that this was a fallacious argument, that we had no real enemies, and that ANZUS would make us enemies who would then attack us should a nuclear war occur. Whereas if we play a peacemaking role, which we advocated as our alternative positive policy, then those potential enemies would be friends and it would be in their interests not to attack.
RAMSAY: What kind of a political relationship with the government did the peace groups have during this process?
ROSS: There are two major parties, the National Party and the Labour Party. The National Party had been in office for some years before the 1984 election, with Labour as the main opposition. The Labour Party had been strong on a Nuclear Free Zone, but within the context of the ANZUS military alliance. They felt they could reach an accommodation with the United States that would allow New Zealand to remain nuclear free while still within ANZUS, but only in a conventional sense, without any links with the nuclear war system.
So, come the '84 election they promised to declare the country nuclear free if elected. We helped with the election by having ads and pamphlets asking the people to support the nuclear free candidate in their electorate most likely to win. We didn't identify directly with Labour, but, as Labour was the official opposition they got the peace vote in most electorates because they were the most likely nuclear free candidate.
After the '84 election, the Labour government was asked to allow a nuclear capable American frigate, the Buchanan, to visit. They were supposed to allow that within the confirm-or-deny policy. The peace movement persuaded the government that it would be politically untenable to allow the Buchanan in. That was a crucial time. If they had let the Buchanan in at that point there would have been holy hell to pay.
RAMSAY: What was the U.S. reaction to this?
ROSS: There were all kinds of threats from the Americans -- economic threats, withdrawal of American protection, kicking New Zealand out of ANZUS, denying us military intelligence, denying us conventional weapons purchases at favorable rates. But the government held firm, because the public believed in what had been done, and it became a big issue in the 1987 election. All the while we were campaigning and asking the government to hold firm on nuclear free, and preparing to go all out in the 1987 election. Labour enacted the law in June 1987 and the election was in August, so it was up to the peace movement then to deliver their support and put them back in. They got in in an overwhelming victory, unprecedented for a Labour government to have a second term, and with such an outstanding majority. The opposition was absolutely routed, proving to everyone in New Zealand and around the world that there are votes in the nuclear free position.
RAMSAY: So let's look at the concept of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Canadian context.
ROSS: It worked in the recent by-election in Newfoundland. The NDP put up a candidate in an electorate that had been Conservative by a wide margin, and the peace movement in St. John's made it an election issue, because this guy wasn't going to cover it. This guy Harris didn't want to touch the issue at first, but the peace movement made him, so he began to be better informed and then spoke about it, and then romped home with a two thousand majority. So Canadian politicians have got to know that if they face the issue, and argue it sensibly, they'll win. But if they do what the British did and fudge the issue, dance around it and get frightened about handling it...
The NDP shows some signs of being afraid of the issue in Canada and as it comes closer to power the more they back away. They may just back themselves into a Liberal victory. If they try hard enough, they'll seize defeat out of the jaws of victory. They apparently want to do the English exercise, which is to lose, rather than the New Zealand exercise which is to confront the issue: full page ads, the lot, and level with the people and say: "look you guys, NATO is a suicide pact, it's going to result in nuclear war unless we radically change our thinking globally and Canada can start as a peacemaker state. Get behind us, we'll pull out of NATO, we'll stop the nuclear nonsense, we'll stop these warship visits, cruise tests and the rest." If I'm brought back to this country I'll certainly do my best to reach Mr. Broadbent, and give him insight into how it worked for New Zealand, and how it might work for him, to get him into office.
RAMSAY:Well, to my mind NDP, Liberals, Conservatives, they're all pretty much in the same ballpark.
ROSS: That's what a lot of people said about the Labour Party in New Zealand-- that you might as well forget about politicking because you'll always be sold out. But the point is that the peace movement has kept the Labour Party pure on the nuclear issue, and that's what counts. We have political clout in New Zealand, just as you have here if you choose to use it, but you've got to keep watch.
RAMSAY: How do you view the Peace Pledge Campaign?
ROSS: The Canadian Peace Pledge Campaign will have to move ahead rapidly, and in depth, and in strength, to mobilize Canadians to get behind it-- lobby the local parliamentarians and candidates to get the pledge from them, to vote Canada out of the nuclear arms race. It has to be up front and they have to speak out on it to get the peace vote. They're not going to get it cheap, and that has to be emphasized.
RAMSAY: As an outspoken critic of the campaign, I said we should not be involved in it at all, because it says that power belongs to the politicians, that this is where it rightfully belongs. It perpetuates the system. The campaign's centralized nature doesn't allow-- ROSS: The point is the system is the way it is working and it's all you've got. Time is running out. If you're mobilized you will be a power in the NDP, and the policies you advocate will be a power within the party. If you win on them, they'll listen to you, and they won't be able to do backtracking, and you will have the power of the people. You're not going anywhere otherwise. You've got to think of winning with what you have.
RAMSAY: So your feeling is that the New Zealand population has been able to keep the government "honest."
ROSS: Absolutely! Labour cannot back down.
RAMSAY: One thing that really horrifies me about the NDP defence policy is the gross expansion of conventional forces.
ROSS: It is a failure in philosophy and a breakdown in analysis for them to think in these terms when they could level with the people and say frankly there is no more security in weapons. The only hope of the human race surviving in the long term is to change the way of thinking in the world --starting with Canada. Canada can lead in an even more important way than New Zealand. You're geographically positioned to be a very significant force between the superpowers. So, if you make your move, you'll really be advancing the cause of world peace.
Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1988, page 12. Some rights reserved.
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