In many ways, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s first foreign policy speech was as much about what she didn’t say as what she did. Sam Sachdeva reports on the main takeaways from Ardern’s address.

As goes Morrinsville, so goes the world?

It may be a stretch, but Jacinda Ardern started small in her first big-picture speech on New Zealand’s foreign policy.

Delivering the keynote address to the NZ Institute of International Affairs’ (NZIIA) annual conference, the Prime Minister said her childhood in the Waikato dairy farming town had provided an early taste of her place in the world.

“It would be easy to feel isolated from the world, impervious to what was happening around you.

“But the size of the town has rarely isolated anyone from the reverberations of international events: the removal of tariff protections right through to the 1987 stock exchange crash all had their impact.”

Broadening out to our international ties, Ardern largely stuck to the MFAT-approved script: Australia was “our only ally and closest friend”, our relationship with the United States “also fundamental”.

There was the slightest nod to the debate over China’s growing power and how that is being felt around the world.

Praising the country’s leadership in areas like climate change and trade liberalisation, she adhered to the standard line that New Zealand would “speak honestly and openly with our friends in Beijing” on issues of concern like the country’s human rights record.

“Taking that approach isn’t about singling countries out, but about taking a consistent approach on the issues and principles that matter to us,” Ardern said – a line that will not go far enough for the China hawks wanting a more muscular approach.

The Pacific received more attention than Asia, with Ardern emphasising New Zealand’s long and well-established ties there – perhaps a sign that the growing interest of China (and others) in the region is beginning to cause concern.

There was a reassurance that the Five Eyes relationship would remain unaffected, and (quite reasonable) concern expressed about threats to the rules-based order.

From economic value to moral values?

In some ways, there was more to be gained from what Ardern didn’t say than what she did.

As one experienced observer noted, it was a marked change in tone from the mercantilist focus of previous prime ministerial addresses on foreign policy.

Under the last government, John Key and Bill English both framed New Zealand’s relationship with the world in terms of our economic and trade ties.

During his brief stint in charge, English emphasised the battle against the headwinds of protectionism at home and abroad, while Key also railed against barriers to imports and investment and touted New Zealand’s reputation as a “free trade trailblazer”.

Ardern did not entirely shy away from talking trade – indeed, she described it as “an essential part of our engagement with other countries” – but it was hardly the focal point.

Instead, her address was threaded with references to upholding New Zealand’s “values”: perhaps not that surprising, but a word absent from English’s and Key’s last NZIIA speeches.

Most important in navigating an increasingly volatile and unpredictable world, she said, was “maintaining our focus on that which should define us both domestically and abroad – our values”.

During a pre-election debate on issues closer to home, English retorted that “you can’t go shopping with your values”, and Ardern will need to prove her words in the foreign policy sphere are more than empty promises.

Disarmament and climate change

She has already turned rhetoric into reality on one front, reestablishing the role of the Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control.

The portfolio, to be held by Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, was scrapped in 2011 under the last National government.

Its revival is a sign that Ardern is keen to trade on New Zealand’s history as a leader in the area.

It doesn’t hurt that it provides a reminder of Labour’s own history in government, with her speech referring to Norman Kirk and David Lange and their respective stances against nuclear weapons and testing.

Ardern’s speech also emphasised climate change, what she described during the election campaign as “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”.

That was unsurprising, given her speech to the Apec CEO Summit in Vietnam last year, but it is still a shrewd way to stake out a leadership role for New Zealand in an area that appeals to her voters at home.

The value of ‘global citizenship’

Taking questions from the audience, Ardern circled back to her childhood when asked about the importance of civic society, talking about her high school education on human rights and decision to join Amnesty International.

“It’s our foundation, it’s the point at which we make sure citizens freel engaged in our position in the world as well, and also stand behind the positions that often we’ll take as a government and understand why we’re taking them.”

She made a point of highlighting efforts to increase “global citizenship” within the school curriculum, saying young people needed to be engaged: “It shouldn’t be left only to political actors.”

Foreign policy rarely rates with a domestic audience, and it remains to be seen how much of a priority Ardern will make it during her term.

But if she can follow through on her speech, we may see some subtle but significant changes in New Zealand’s international profile.

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

Leave a comment