The fourth United States New Zealand Partnership Forum was held in Christchurch, New Zealand February 20-22 2011. By every measure, the Forum was a great success with distinguished delegations, in depth discussion of topics of importance to the two countries and the world, and social events that included an opening reception and Powhiri and a gala dinner. Sadly, with the Forum in its final afternoon and delegates scattered at “boardroom luncheons” at NZ businesses throughout Christchurch, the city suffered a violent 6.3 magnitude earthquake which destroyed many buildings, especially in the central business district, and resulted in the loss of life estimated to reach over 200. All US and NZ Forum participants – delegates, observers, spouses, partners, and guests – escaped without physical injury. All were swiftly evacuated to Wellington and Auckland by Royal New Zealand Airforce C-130 Hercules.

While the 2011 forum thus was marked by sadness and tragedy, the dialogue it encouraged made it a resounding success and a positive step forward for the US-New Zealand relationship. Although they experienced New Zealand’s “darkest day” and the beginning of a very difficult period for Christchurch and its citizens, the Forum delegations reacted with calm and courage. The two governments performed extraordinarily well in arranging their evacuation and the Americans who bonded in ways they could not have anticipated or imagined, continue to reach out generously and warmly to their New Zealand friends.

The 2011 Partnership Forum was led by US Co-Chairs Ambassador Susan Schwab, former U.S. Trade Representative, and Senator Evan Bayh, former Senator and Governor from Indiana. For New Zealand the Co-Chairs were Rt Hon James Bolger, former New Zealand Prime Minister, and Hon Michael Cullen, former Deputy Prime Minister.

Organized by the US-NZ Council and its counterpart the NZ-US Council, the 2011 Forum once again focused thought-leaders from both countries on ways in which the two countries can work together, bilaterally and throughout the Asia Pacific. Another “dazzling” NZ delegation greeted an American delegation of unprecedented level and quality, one that included a bipartisan Congressional Delegation of eight Members of Congress, distinguished current and former government officials such as Kurt Campbell, Rich Armitage, Chris Hill, Wendy Sherman, Clayton Yeutter and Thad Allen, and top executives from a dozen major American companies.

The agenda featured key note addresses from NZ Prime Minister John Key and US Ambassador to New Zealand, David Huebner, who substituted for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano who had to cancel her attendance just prior to the start of the Forum because of the death of a DHS agent in Mexico. While NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, and NZ Leader of the Opposition Phil Goff also made remarks, the focus of the high-level delegations was dialogue, with panel presentations designed to stimulate discussion in plenary and break-out sessions relevant to the theme of the United States and New Zealand working together to address key global challenges.

Under the theme of “The Power of Partnering: Global Challenges and the Role of the US-NZ Partnership”, the Forum discussed a number of big ideas for addressing new and emerging challenges. As with earlier Forum events, the 2011 event facilitated the deepening of personal ties among those attending the event and served to motivate an already influential group of advocates from each country with a common agenda to promote closer relations between New Zealanders and Americans.

In addition to the distinguished delegations, the 2011 Forum was ground breaking for a number of reasons. A study of five sectors of the strategic relationship commissioned by the two councils and led by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in association with the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (NZIIA) entitled “Pacific Partners – The Future of U.S-New Zealand Relations” (the ‘Pacific Partners Report’) was presented and discussed at the opening session. Integrated into the Forum was a gathering of American Fulbright scholars studying in New Zealand and an equal number of NZ students. Called the Future Partner’s Forum, this group of new leaders met with many of the Forum delegates, developed consensus views on where the relationship should go, and attended some of the Forum’s plenary sessions and social events. Inspired by the Forum, the University of Auckland held a health innovation conference in Auckland just prior to the Forum attended by US medical doctors, scientists, and business executives in the health field.

The discussion of the Pacific Partners Report was followed by a plenary session on the TPP trade negotiations and workshops on food safety and sustainability, climate change, regional economic growth, security cooperation, which were to be reported in a closing plenary session. Because of the abrupt end to the Forum, the two Councils will follow up with the workshop rapporteurs, the Future Partners, and others to bring closure to this unquestionably productive but also historic Partnership Forum.

To see the full report of the 2011 Partnership Forum, click here.