Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s first visit to the United Nations comes at a time when the organisation and the wider international order are in disarray. Sam Sachdeva reports from New York on the likely flashpoints – and what Ardern can hope to get out of the visit.

As far as debuts go, Jacinda Ardern could have hoped for a calmer climate in which to make her United Nations bow.

Ardern will be among roughly 130 heads of state or government attending this year’s UN General Assembly at Turtle Bay, with police cars and security guards rapidly multiplying in the area as more leaders arrive in New York.

The 73rd general assembly comes at a time of growing unease about the instability around the world, and the threats to the world order.

Frederick Kempe, chief executive of US foreign policy think tank The Atlantic Council, summed up the sense of fear among some experts about “a crisis…brewing in the cauldron of excessive debt, growing trade tensions and mounting geopolitical risk”.

“I’ve never known a time when the potential sources of volatility have been so widespread geographically,” Kempe said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed the same sentiments in a press conference ahead of the assembly, speaking of an erosion of trust and “that multilateralism has been in the fire”.

Trump stokes the flames

While Guterres said he did not want to personalise the issue, it seems clear that US President Donald Trump has been stoking those flames as much if not more than any other leader.

Trump’s inaugural UN speech in 2017 did little to soothe fears about his darker tendencies, as he pledged to “totally destroy” North Korea.

While relations between the two countries have thawed somewhat after a summit in Singapore, Trump has continued to threaten the wider world order, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal to the dismay of allies, slashing funding for UN organisations, and embroiling the US in a trade war with China that is rapidly escalating.

Donald Trump’s actions since taking office have displayed little regard for international norms. Photo: Getty Images.

It was then unsurprising when Trump hinted at the tone he will take this year at the UN, saying in a video posted to his Twitter account that the organisation had not “lived up to its potential”.

He has the chance to make that happen, chairing a UN Security Council meeting on non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction (according to some reports, Trump initially wanted to single out Iran but was talked out of it by his officials to avoid blowback over the US withdrawal).

While there has been some talk about China filling the gap on the world stage left by the US, it’s not clear that would be an improved outcome given the former’s tendencies to also disregard the international norms with which it finds fault.

Making the case for multilateralism

That is where countries like New Zealand, and leaders like Ardern, come in.

Successive governments in Aotearoa have made a point of emphasising the value of the rules-based international order, whether on trade, humanitarian efforts, or other multilateral issues.

If it can sometimes feel a little predictable listening to our leaders stick to their MFAT-approved talking points, there is genuine value in like-minded countries banding together and showing there is still an appetite for multilateral initiatives.

Ardern’s status as the so-called “anti-Trump”, a young, liberal, female leader balancing work and life as a new mother, has given her cachet amongst event organisers and international media outlets: the “stardust” beginning to rub off at home is very much present on the world stage.

Jacinda Ardern is pushing the case for UN reform – but any dramatic change seems unlikely. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

That gives her a megaphone to push New Zealand’s message in support of multilateralism, and if Trump seems unlikely to be swayed, there may be other leaders who take the sentiment on board.

Wisely, Ardern is also pushing the case for UN reform, in particularly the veto powers wielded by the Security Council’s permanent members which make meaningful progress unlikely on many hot-button topics.

While the P5 won’t give up their powers lightly, any strengthening of the veto rules could prove a boon for UN, an organisation suffering from a growing deficit of confidence.

Ardern’s brand, or NZ’s?

Of course, there is an element of Ardern burnishing her brand, as well as New Zealand’s, on the trip.

But it can be hard to separate the two in a world where the terms politician and celebrity can seem interchangeable – just ask the former star of The Apprentice.

As with John Key’s appearance on The Letterman Show, Ardern has made a calculated gamble that any potential embarrassment or domestic criticism will be outweighed by the international benefits for New Zealand (a seemingly safe bet).

If Ardern, and her fellow defenders of multilateralism, can make any headway against the headwinds of protectionism, she will consider it time well spent.

In any case, the sheer volume of speeches and events Ardern is attending should dispel the suggestion this is simply about hobnobbing with celebrities.

Defining success at a multilateral event like this seems difficult, with a lack of tangible agreements to be touted back home.

But if Ardern, and her fellow defenders of multilateralism, can make any headway against the headwinds of protectionism, she will consider it time well spent.

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

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