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Prime Minister’s international scorecard: a win and a loss

Line of Defence Magazine, Summer 2017/18

Will New Zealand's international outlook be marked more by pragmatism or idealism? Image: Ulysse Bellier.Will New Zealand's international outlook be marked more by pragmatism or idealism? Image: Ulysse Bellier.


Having notched up her first two international trips as prime minister, Jacinda Ardern has returned with mixed results, writes Wayne Mapp. What do these results suggest in terms of the Government’s approach to international affairs going forward?


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has barely had a month in office. In that time. she has had one big foreign win – the Comprehensive Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – but she has also had one loss. She failed to convince Australia’s Prime Minister Turnbull that New Zealand should take 150 Manus Island refugees, and in the process, did some harm to the Trans-Tasman relationship.

Both cases illustrate how Prime Minister Ardern is likely to position New Zealand over the next three years. They illustrate how her own self-characterisation as a ‘pragmatic idealist’ will work in practice.

The CPTPP illustrates her essentially cautious instincts about New Zealand’s role in the Asia Pacific. At least on economic matters, it is highly unlikely she will position New Zealand outside the multilateral framework of the region.

New Zealand will continue to see active engagement in the wide variety of regional economic arrangements and free trade agreements, as well as the annual leaders and ministerial meetings, as fundamental to its place in the region, and the nation’s continuing prosperity.

While a unilateralist approach, particularly stepping away from the regional security obligations, both formal and informal, might have appeal to Prime Minister Ardern’s most leftwing supporters, it would not be a sustainable strategy over time.

There would be far too many sectors of business and of society that would be adversely affected. They would quickly mobilise to ensure that the coalition only had one term in office.

At the East Asia Summit, on the principal security issue of North Korea, New Zealand went along with the overall approach. Whilst Prime Minister Ardern was not prepared to accept military force as a potential outcome, that simply meant she was in common concert with virtually all the other national leaders.

There is no indication that New Zealand will step outside the general security framework of the region. It is expected that New Zealand will participate in the 2018 Pacific Rim naval exercises in Hawaii hosted by United States Pacific Command. This will reflect the increased closeness that the previous National government had developed with the United States over the last decade.

Participation in the regular defence and security exercises held within the region, such as the Five Power Defence Arrangement or the Pacific Rim naval exercises pose no particular challenges for governments, unless that government takes a starkly unilateralist approach. There is no indication that the new coalition government is of that persuasion.

The real test will come if there is an actual security challenge that requires the deployment of forces in a multilateral coalition.


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Historically, the default position of Labour-led governments is that there must be a United Nations Security Council resolution authorising the use of force. However, it is not hard to imagine circumstances in the Asia Pacific, particularly if the United States and China are on opposite sides of the issue – even if they’re not actually engaged in conflict – where such a resolution will not be forthcoming.

How the Ardern-led government will act will depend on the specific case. But it is almost certain they will be more circumspect on such matters than the preceding National-led government.

Changes of government inevitably mean things will be done differently. This is particularly true when taking into account that Jacinda Ardern is part of the post baby boom generation. She, along with Justin Trudeau, are the two leaders within the region who are not from the generation born in the twenty or so years after World War Two.

In Jacinda’s case, her parents are from the baby boom generation. As is common with her generation, the things that matter the most are somewhat different to the preceding generation. Military and security issues figure less prominently; human rights and the environment have a larger role.

This is very evident with the Manus refugees. Her prime concern has been the welfare of the refugees on Manus, not the issue of border security. She put more emphasis on the existing New Zealand offer to take 150 Manus Island refugees.

The issue has come to dominate the initial interactions between the two Prime Ministers. Although she was somewhat circumspect about the matter during her visit to Australia, it became a significant and somewhat divisive issue between the two leaders at the East Asia Summit.

Prime Minister Ardern was publicly critical of the conditions facing the refugees. Prime Minister Turnbull was unable to find any time to met her. Since then the issue has been downplayed a little, but it remains a sore point between the two countries.

The situation will have been a chastising introduction for Prime Minister Ardern to the reality of working with New Zealand’s closest partner and most important international relationship. She will inevitably learn from the experience, and do what is required to keep the ANZAC partnership in good order.

It is clear, notwithstanding Australia’s rebuff of the New Zealand offer, that Prime Minister Ardern is likely to continue to take a more activist role when it comes to human rights and environmental issues.

At the East Asia Summit, Prime Minister Ardern characterised climate change as the single most important issue facing the world, and a particular challenge for her generation. She has already offered the prospect to low-lying Pacific Island nations that their citizens will be treated as climate change refugees in the event of excessive inundation by rising sea levels.

It can be expected that New Zealand will take a more active international role on climate change issues, particularly given that the portfolio is held by the co-leader of the Green Party. This is likely to include a greater and more prominent research profile in the Pacific and Antarctica. New Zealand is likely to seek international collaborative efforts in such endeavours.

More significant will be the role that New Zealand takes on climate change diplomacy. It is almost certain the new government will seek to be a leader in this area, and it will become a major focus of New Zealand’s international diplomatic effort.

Prime Minister Ardern is notable for her passionate advocacy of idealistic internationalism. It has flavoured her political career. But the role of Prime Minister requires more circumspection. The events of the last month indicate that she may, in the future, place greater value on the pragmatic part of being a pragmatic idealist.


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