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In a 2018 interview, after a year in office, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said “there’s probably a tendency to view power… to be either based on size or the size and power of your economy. I think New Zealand’s strength has always been using our voice on the issues that matter and we’ve been consistent on it. There is power in that.”
These comments came well before Ardern’s star power on the international stage brightened to its current wattage, and the combination of a capable and charismatic leader at the helm of a country whose influence exceeds its size points to an emerging new phase for New Zealand and its place in the international order.
New Zealand plays a leading role in a variety of international institutions and efforts – from championing WTO reform, to serving as legal depository for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and signatory of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), to hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings and contributing to UN peacekeeping operations worldwide. When the U.S. Chamber hosted Ardern for a virtual InSTEP discussion on April 28, she explained that New Zealand’s work within the international system reflected a collective need to reinforce the global architecture necessary to address challenges that are no longer domestic, such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
She also described a country that values its independent foreign policy, its upholding of norms, and its promotion of human rights and democracy. Without using the words, she spoke of New Zealand’s conviction and integrity, how it uses its voice and the power of example to lead and bring others along. In addressing climate change, for example, New Zealand has passed significant legislation at home that gave Ardern added credibility when she called on other nations to act at the April Leaders Summit on Climate.
New Zealand’s advocacy for a rules-based international system far predates Ardern’s tenure as prime minister. But now, following able and compassionate management of multiple crises including terrorism and the pandemic, the country finds itself galvanized by a clear and long-held agenda articulated internationally by a popular leader, well-known outside its borders.
The question, then, is how does New Zealand make the most of these circumstances? We have seen Ardern argue for ambitious action on climate. Will New Zealand also urge a U.S. return to CPTPP? Will it provide additional nuance and “broaden the platform of engagement” on the question of China’s role in the region, out of lockstep from Five Eyes friends? Is there a way to use its approach to pandemic management as a model for the future and strengthen international health institutions and practices? Or even an increased emphasis among nations, as Ardern said, on “holding ourselves to account for our actions?” Ideas must be buzzing at the Beehive (Parliament) in Wellington, as New Zealand takes stock of its situation.
Ardern, continuing in the 2018 interview, said that “we need to use our power for good,” and she remains consistent – noting in her session with the U.S. Chamber in April that when New Zealand sees issues that are counter to its values, particularly around human rights and democracy, it is committed to sharing its views “very openly and in a way that guards those principles that [New Zealanders] hold dear.” For those like-minded countries that also have faith in a rules-based system, the emergence of a strengthened, more influential New Zealand should bring great cheer.