Former New York governor Mario Cuomo famously said politicians must campaign in poetry, but govern in prose.

It’s a lesson Jacinda Ardern has had cause to absorb during her first and largely positive foray onto the world stage.

Just over three months ago, Ardern was staring down the barrel of a fourth term in opposition with Labour.

Now, after a poetic come-from-behind victory, she is screaming through Asian streets at the centre of a motorcade and walking down red carpets to be greeted by world leaders.

Of course, the reality of these summits is more prosaic for most, as exemplified by the muggy, narrow, packed corridor that media and officials waited in while their leaders held bilateral talks at the East Asia Summit in Manila.

There was a hint of lyricism early in the trip, when Ardern spoke at the Apec CEO Summit in Vietnam about climate change “lapping at our feet” in the Asia-Pacific.

Yet the Prime Minister and her team quickly showed a pragmatic streak in signing off on the polarising Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal.

 Pragmatism wins on TPP 

Labour was an outspoken critic of the TPP while in opposition (along with its coalition partners), and was dealt a difficult hand when given just three weeks to push for last-minute changes and make a call on whether or not to back the agreement.

Ardern’s canny Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker had already come up with a solution to implement a “ban” on foreign home buyers, but the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clauses were tougher to fix.

In the end, the Prime Minister signed off on an agreement with somewhat narrowed ISDS clauses, calculating the benefits to Kiwi exporters of improved access to a number of markets – Japan in particular – outweighed the negatives.

It appeared a more constructive approach than Ardern’s Canadian counterpart and fellow liberal star Justin Trudeau, whose no-show to scheduled TPP leaders’ talks threatened briefly to derail the deal.

Canadian media spun the move as masterful strategising to secure a better deal – a suggestion Ardern slapped down, saying: “I wouldn’t want anyone to be under any illusion that somehow they advocated for theirs more strongly than ours – we pushed hard, but we pushed hard at the negotiating table.”

The Government’s decision is not without risk: Ardern’s team had hoped the unions would be onside with the decision but the CTU has maintained its opposition, while the Greens have pledged to oppose the deal and fellow coalition partner New Zealand First may yet follow.

But she has clearly decided it was worth the temporary pain for a long-term gain.

Making a stand on Manus

In her comments about the situation on Manus Island, Ardern has run up hard against the realities of world diplomacy.

Her comments about the plight of the asylum seekers and refugees – that she saw “the human face of this”, that it was “clear we don’t see what’s happening there as acceptable” – hardly seemed a blistering excoriation of Australia’s role, given the tales from those among the hundreds at the offshore detention centre.

Yet her comments seemed to rile the Australians, perhaps not expecting such a sharp tone given the careful wording of her predecessors.

A story in Australian newspaper the Courier-Mail seemed designed to do Ardern damage, “revealing” attempts from people smugglers to reach New Zealand and speaking about “genuine fears within intelligence communities” that her approach could encourage more to send boats.

Ardern brushed the report off, but the fracas is unlikely to do much to ease strains in the trans-Tasman relationship.

More bland words may have led to an increased likelihood of a compromise, but would not have conveyed the gravity with which Ardern sees the situation, and it is to her credit that she was able and willing to speak out.

And in the end, some old-fashioned legwork from officials behind the scenes, coupled with a 20-minute meeting between Ardern and Malcolm Turnbull, seemed to pay dividends, with the two countries working in advance to be ready if and when Australia decides to take up the offer.

Poetry can win campaigns, but Ardern will need to mix that with a fair amount of prose to navigate the tricky international environment over the coming term.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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