It has been an exciting and important week for the Burmese people. After decades of authoritarian rule, there are promising signs that the Myanmar regime is prepared to embrace democratic reform in a meaningful, sincere, and sustainable way.

In Sunday’s by-elections, opposition candidates won virtually all of the contested seats, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament after 20 years in detention. International observers generally agree that the elections were conducted in a free and fair manner. The Burmese government itself has praised the elections and pledged to quickly certify and honor the results.

Today Secretary Clinton discussed the Obama Administration’s response to the election including plans to name a fully accredited American Ambassador to Rangoon after an absence of more than two decades, establish a USAID mission to support development programs, enable American NGOs to operate in Burma, partially ease the ban on exports and investment, and facilitate travel to the US by certain Burmese parliamentarians and other officials engaged in implementing democratic reforms.

The Secretary noted the delicate nature of the process ahead:

“Now, this reform process has a long way to go. The future is neither clear nor certain. But we will continue to monitor developments closely and meet, as I said when I was there, action with action. We will continue to seek improvements in human rights, including the unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners and the lifting of conditions on all those who have been released. We will continue our support for the development of a vibrant civil society, which we think will greatly add to the reform of the economy and society. We will continue to urge progress in national reconciliation, specifically with ethnic minority groups. And we will continue to press for the verifiable termination of the military relationship with North Korea.

“Yet even as we urge these further steps, we fully recognize and embrace the progress that has taken place, and we will continue our policy of engagement that has encouraged these efforts. The leadership has shown real understanding and commitment to the future of their country. That development, we hope, will be sustainable and produce even more results.”

The positive steps forward in Burma are certainly worth celebrating, supporting, and reinforcing, as are the efforts of other reformers elsewhere to establish inclusive, transparent governance and respect for the inherent right of people everywhere to speak freely, assemble peacefully, and select their own leaders.

Seventy years ago today, on February 16, 1942, Walter Nash entered the Oval Office and presented to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt his credentials as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of New Zealand. Mr Nash, then the Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, thus became his country’s first Ambassador to the United States.

Ambassador Walter Nash (center) with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (at left).

Mr Nash’s arrival in Washington marked the establishment of New Zealand’s first Embassy anywhere, preceding establishment of Kiwi missions in Ottawa and then Canberra. Mr Nash’s arrival as Ambassador marked both the launch of formal NZ-US diplomatic relations and New Zealand’s assumption of responsibility for its own foreign policy and international relationships, independent of the Crown.

President Roosevelt reciprocated by appointing an envoy to Wellington. It is important to note, however, that American diplomatic presence in Aotearoa had begun more than a century before that. It was on October 12, 1838, well before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, that the United States commissioned John R. Clendon to be its first Consul in Aotearoa.

Mr Nash proved to be a tenacious advocate for close Kiwi-American relations. He had extraordinary access in Washington, and it was he who paved the way for the arrival in New Zealand in June 1942 of tens of thousands of American Marines and soldiers to defend Aotearoa from feared invasion, and to establish a staging ground for engaging the invaders in the Pacific islands.

The Rt. Hon Peter Fraser is welcomed at Washington

Ambassador Nash (third from left) introduces Prime Minister Peter Fraser (in black hat) to US Secretary of State Cordell Hull (in white hat) in Washington.

Seventy years on, Kiwis and Americans still stand shoulder to shoulder on the issues that matter the most in the world. We advocate together for universal human rights from a position of deeply held, shared civic values. The brave men and women of our respective armed forces serve and sacrifice together in peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts around the world.

And we are working closely together on a wide variety of economic development, climate change, disaster response, and other projects. In a show-me-the-money era, when values are often viewed as quaint inconveniences, it is important to recognize that first principles rather than pecuniary gain bind our relationship together.

Yes, we don’t always agree on everything. But that is to be expected. If we don’t occasionally squabble, then we aren’t being honest with each other. What matters is not the 5% or so of the time that we disagree, but the 95% of the time that our interests and instincts naturally align. What also matters greatly is how we deal with disagreement when it occurs. There will always be those who politicize or sensationalize to advance their own narrow agendas.  Those souls do not serve their respective peoples well.

Press Conference.

The Secretary and the Prime Minister take questions after the signing of the Wellington Declaration.

We are both Pacific nations geographically, demographically, culturally, and historically, and our longstanding partnership is a major force for good in the region. Secretary Clinton and Minister McCully reconfirmed that fundamental alignment when they signed the Wellington Declaration in 2010, which pledged to deepen and expand our bilateral relationship even further through practical cooperation in the Pacific region and enhanced political and expert dialogue.

The Wellington Declaration has borne fruit in dozens of tangible ways in just its first year, from accelerated collaboration on agricultural greenhouse gas emission research, to a joint humanitarian naval exercise in Tonga and Vanuatu, to an extremely short-notice operation using US Coast Guard resources to alleviate a potable water crisis in Tokelau, to increased educational and exchange programs, and much more.

USCG Walnut, Tokelau.

The USCG Walnut arrives in Tokelau with Kiwi and American teams.

The Wellington Declaration fits naturally within America’s pervasive, ongoing engagement in the Pacific. We don’t always get everything right, but the immense positive contribution that the United States has made in the region over the past century — at great cost in American lives and treasure — is beyond reasonable dispute. As Secretary Clinton wrote in a recent journal article:

We are the only power with a network of strong alliances in the region, no territorial ambitions, and a long record of providing for the common good. Along with our allies, we have underwritten regional security for decades, patrolling Asia’s sea lanes and preserving stability, and that in turn has helped create the conditions for growth. We have helped integrate billions of people across the region into the global economy by spurring economic productivity, social empowerment, and greater people-to-people links … [as] a champion of open markets and an advocate for universal human rights.”

Secretary Clinton in Burma with pro-democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Secretary Clinton in Burma with pro-democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

New Zealand has been a strong, consistent, important partner in many of those efforts. That’s why we remember and celebrate Mr Nash’s arrival in Washington 70 years ago, as well as Mr Clendon’s appointment in Aotearoa 174 years ago. And that’s why the steady work on reinvigorating government-to-government relations over the past few years has been so important.

In a transactional world, real friendship is a special treasure. As the great American philosopher Oprah Winfrey has said, “Everyone wants to ride with you in the limo. What you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”

From the dark days of 1942, to mutual support on Antarctica, to Hurricane Katrina, to the Christchurch earthquakes, that’s the kind of friendship that Americans and Kiwis have. No official press release or press conference is required to announce it. It’s natural, deep, and instinctive. And it’s there when one needs it most.

DH Sig