United States and New Zealand Relations

Early Years, 1790 to 1939

In the late 18th Century, American sealers and whalers operated in New Zealand waters, and by 1838 more than half of the whaling ships visiting the Bay of Islands were American.  That same year, the United States became the first country to establish a consulate office in New Zealand.






American entertainers and speakers toured New Zealand, including Mark Twain in 1895.  Many of these visitors influenced NZ society.  For example, American groups helped spur the suffrage movement, leading to voting rights for New Zealand women in 1893  –  27 years before the United States adopted the 19th Amendment.

While American thinkers influenced New Zealand reformers in the late 19th century, the reverse was also true.  American progressives studied NZ’s examples of labor laws and industrial relations.

In 1908, New Zealand welcomed the visiting U.S. “Great White Fleet,” a battle fleet dispatched by President Theodore Roosevelt to circumnavigate the globe and demonstrate U.S. military power.  However, New Zealand (and Australia) still relied on Great Britain for military support.

3 2






Following World War I, U.S. oil companies and manufacturers entered the New Zealand market.  General Motors opened a factory at Petone in 1926, and the U.S. share of New Zealand imports grew steadily to 15 percent.

Allies, 1939 to 1984

During World War II, about 100,000 U.S. troops were stationed in New Zealand to help protect the country from a Japanese invasion.  In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt visited U.S. and NZ servicemen, commended New Zealand women on their contribution to the war effort, and toured Whakarewarewa, Rotorua.  This marked the first time a First Lady had been to New Zealand.

Following the war, the United States became the main provider of military security in Asia and the Pacific.  In 1951, New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. signed the ANZUS military treaty, committing all three countries to provide support if any ANZUS nation were attacked.

4 5







New Zealand also sent troops to fight alongside American forces in the Korean and Vietnam wars.  In 1966, Lyndon Johnson became the first U.S. president to visit New Zealand, thanking the nation for its support.

After Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the United States became a more important trading partner for New Zealand.  American social and cultural influences, such as country music, Hollywood movies, and counter-culture movements, gained popularity.

In 1948, New Zealand established a Fulbright program to encourage cultural and educational exchanges with the United States.  Americans were well-represented in New Zealand’s academic community.  New Zealanders such as Nobel prize-winning chemist Alan MacDiarmid, space scientist William Pickering, and astrophysicist Beatrice Tinsley had distinguished careers in the United States.  The two countries cooperated on research, and in 1955 the United States established a “Deep Freeze” base in Christchurch for its Antarctic program.

Mid- to Late 1980s Crisis

After years of stagnation, the United States undertook initiatives to strengthen its military partnerships and capabilities around the world, and to keep in check Soviet expansionism in the 1980s.  During this time, there was growing concern over nuclear power and nuclear weapons.  David Lange’s Labour government was elected in 1984, in part, on a platform of making New Zealand a nuclear-free nation.

The following year, New Zealand declined an American request for a visit by a naval vessel, the U.S.S. Buchanan, on the basis that it might be capable of carrying nuclear weapons.  By 1987, the New Zealand government codified this policy, thereby banning visits by nuclear-propelled or nuclear-armed ships or vessels that had the potential to carry nuclear weapons.






US-NZ relations broke down. There were concerns in Washington that other allies might follow suit at a time of growing US-Soviet tension. The United States suspended military cooperation with New Zealand under ANZUS.

Despite the US-NZ conflict, the bilateral trade and cultural relationship continued to flourish. The proportion of U.S. imports and exports in 1990 were greater than in 1984.

Cooperation and Collaboration, 1990 to Today

In September 1999, Bill Clinton became the second U.S. president in office to visit New Zealand, when he attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Auckland.  Following the forum he played golf near Queenstown and declared New Zealand “an enchanted land … a place every child dreams of finding, but most had given up before they reached New Zealand.”

Bill Clinton visited New Zealand in 1999


US-NZ relations improved as New Zealand continued to play a supportive role in international conflicts in Somalia, Bosnia, and the Persian Gulf.  Following the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States, New Zealand supported international counter-terrorism efforts and assisted the United States throughout the war in Afghanistan.

7 8 9 10






In 2010, Prime Minister John Key was invited to President Barack Obama’s nuclear security summit, and the Wellington Declaration was signed, enhancing cooperation between the two countries.  The following year, Prime Minister Key visited Washington, and in 2012, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and NZ Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman signed the Washington Declaration on Defense Cooperation, creating a framework to strengthen the bilateral defense relationship.

11 12





Throughout the 2000s, the United States has remained New Zealand’s third-largest trading partner (after Australia and China), and third-largest source of visitors (after Australia and Britain).

The two countries are leading a regional effort to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.  There is a mutual interest in having the United States play an active and stabilizing role in the Asia-Pacific region.  This comes at a time when China’s economic rise creates opportunities and challenges.

13 14





In the world of sports, New Zealand won the America’s Cup race in 1995 and 2000, becoming the first country outside the United States to win and then defend the sailing Cup.  In 2011, Americans cheered NZ’s famous All Blacks on their way to the World Rugby Cup championship.

New Zealand has a proud history in the world of motor sports.  Kiwi drivers like Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, and Chris Amon drove with American cars and teammates, and Scott Dixon became the first New Zealander to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2008.

1 2 3 4











American popular culture continued to influence New Zealand in everything from hip-hop music to movies, especially among Māori and Pacific youth.  New Zealanders also inhabited and have contributed to the technology universe which the United States has spawned.  NZ entrepreneurs are creating iPhone apps, video marketing games, cyber-security software, and even new rocket engines.

15 16 17





Hollywood and Wellington have collaborated on numerous technologies and films (such as “Tintin”, “Avatar”, and “War Horse”), making both the U.S. and NZ world leaders.  For example, Sir Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy won Oscars in 11 categories in 2004, and his 2013 “The Hobbit” has been a commercial success.

In 2012, musician and composer Bret McKenzie (of “Flight of the Conchords” fame) won the Academy Award for best song (from the Muppets movie).

In 2013, New Zealand pop singer Kimbra won Grammy Awards, including “Best Record of the Year,” for her collaboration with Gotye on “Somebody That I Used To Know,” making her only the third New Zealand singer in history to win a Grammy.  (Previous winners were country artist Keith Urban and opera star Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.)