WASHINGTON, US - The nominee to be US ambassador to New Zealand said Thursday he hoped for closer ties with the Pacific nation despite a more than two-decade row over nuclear weapons.
New Zealand declared itself nuclear-free in 1986 and refused entry to US nuclear ships, leading the United States to suspend its defense obligations to the then ally under a three-way treaty with Australia.
Ambassador-designate David Huebner told his Senate confirmation hearing that New Zealand has nonetheless been an "extraordinary partner" on security issues, pointing to its deployment of elite special forces in Afghanistan.
"One of my priorities would be exploring ways in which we can deepen and expand that kind of engagement on the full range of issues," Huebner told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He said he expected broader ties "recognizing that there will for the indefinite future be certain constraints on the actual military relationship" due to the nuclear issue.
President Barack Obama, in a shift in US policy, has set a goal of eventually abolishing nuclear weapons, while New Zealand a year ago shifted right and elected conservative Prime Minister John Key.
If confirmed by the Senate as expected, Huebner would be the third openly gay ambassador in US history.
Huebner, who would also serve as ambassador to Samoa, introduced to the Senate panel his partner, Duane McWaine, and said the couple had just marked 20 years together.
Obama appointed Huebner after tense relations with the gay community.
Many gay activists avidly supported Obama's campaign but say he has done little since taking office for gay rights - only paying lip service to ending a ban on gays in the military and flat-out opposing gay marriage.
Huebner is based in Shanghai, where he is a partner at the firm Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton, and is also licensed to practice law in England and Wales.
In a fellowship in the 1980s, Huebner went to Japan to serve as an aide to lawmaker Koji Kakizawa - who ironically was later criticized for a remark seen as homophobic when he served as foreign minister.
President Bill Clinton named James Hormel to Luxembourg in 1999 as the first openly gay US ambassador.
Clinton appointed him while the Senate was in recess - a procedure that bypasses confirmation - after several lawmakers from the rival Republican party vigorously opposed Hormel on account of his sexual orientation.
President George W. Bush later appointed Michael Guest as US ambassador to Romania.
Guest quit the US Foreign Service in 2007, citing unfair treatment of his partner.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently changed policy to give US diplomats' gay partners the same treatment as straight spouses.