Her second trip to the United Nations did not provide much hope for stabilisation of the world order, but Jacinda Ardern still has faith that progress can be made.

Talk of a “great fracture” in the world would be a disconcerting message from most speakers. When it is coming from the head of the United Nations, the alarm bells become deafening.

But if there is a ringing sound in Jacinda Ardern’s ears, she is doing her best not to show it.

Perhaps that is natural, given most world leaders wouldn’t want to scare their constituents – but the Prime Minister seems to retain a sense of realism to accompany her optimism.

Speaking with Newsroom at the end of her UN visit, Ardern acknowledged that the sense of a divide concerning so many around the world has not abated.

“I think there are, as there perhaps was last year, two very clear camps and you can hear it.

“There are those who of course who are very focused on delivering for national interests but actually I would say that would be a common thing – of course all of us are mindful of meeting the needs of our own people but it’s whether or not that then means that there is a diminished focus on the international institutions and international obligations.”

Two major countries which have traditionally been in New Zealand’s camp, the United States and the United Kingdom, are less united and useful than usual.

That was cast into sharp relief during Ardern’s trip, when a formal impeachment inquiry was launched into US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was ruled to have broken the law in suspending Parliament to deal with Brexit – a state of instability which Ardern acknowledged had consequences for New Zealand.

“That’s why I think both our economic footing being strong is important but also building resilience through diversified relationships, so that’s why having conversations with the United States, with the EU, talking with Japan about what we do next with the CPTPP, all of that’s important because we just cannot predict the global environment right now.”

‘Us vs other’, reframed

In her United Nations address arguing for a return to more collective ways of working, Ardern cited the work of American scientist Robert Sapolsky, who through his study of primates has produced research on the nature of tribalism.

Sapolsky, she told the UN audience, “recently reminded us that humans organise. Whether it’s class, race, country or coin flipping– there has always been a tendency to form us vs other.

“But he also asks the question, what if we change what ‘us’ means?”

However, Sapolsky does not appear as optimistic as Ardern: in a piece for Foreign Affairs, he wrote that while “today’s ‘them’ can become tomorrow’s us’…this is only poor consolation”.

“It is not beyond the human species to go to war over which country’s people carry out the most noble acts of random kindness. The worst of nationalism, then, is unlikely to be overcome anytime soon.”

How, then, can Ardern promote Sapolsky’s findings without his more depressing conclusions?

“Because I’m a New Zealander and I’d like to think that we have a real sense of pragmatism,” she responds, “but also I think that we see the inherent good in one another as well.

“I still reflect back on the way that I saw New Zealand as a country respond to one of our really darkest times in my memories and that leads me to yes, be optimistic.”

The Christchurch Call shows that instability in the world order does not stop countries from making progress on transnational issues, Jacinda Ardern says. Photo: Getty Images.

She has been frequently stopped by UN participants who wanted to discuss the March 15 attack – not the motivations and white supremacy of the alleged terrorist, but the empathy and societal cohesion which marked New Zealand’s response.

“[Sapolsky] offers this idea that you can define yourself over the things that you want to be known for as a country, and that doesn’t mean therefore that you are oppositional to everyone who isn’t – it just means people may be well known for different things.

“Well then actually, in some ways, New Zealand has always defined itself by what it’s not – it’s about saying that there are some positive descriptors in there as well.”

While she heard some of the same language from nationalist leaders as in 2018, what has changed is her belief that it is possible to make progress in spite of that environment.

Take the Christchurch Call, she argues, set up by New Zealand and France in the wake of the Christchurch attack to tackle online extremism and now supported by nearly 50 nations.

Ardern is also eager to trumpet a smaller but symbolically significant alliance with Costa Rica, Fiji, Iceland, and Norway to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, remove tariffs on environmental goods, and develop voluntary guidelines for eco-labelling programmes (among other initiatives).

“At this particular point yes, there’s been challenges to those multilateral institutions, but there is still engagement and there are still those who consistently are seeking to elevate [those institutions] as well.”

Announcing the launch of negotiations for a formal agreement, Ardern said trade rules and climate change had to be intertwined if progress was to be made.

The group was small but could be the start of something big, she said, moving ahead in an area where the World Trade Organisation had tried and failed to make headway.

But that WTO failure, as well as the plurilateral nature of the agreements Ardern has trumpeted, begs the question: are we witnessing the death of multilateralism?

“Ultimately we are having these debates within a multilateral environment, so by default no, but I think that probably throughout history we will have found points where there’s been strength and points at which there’s been weakness.

“I think at this particular point yes, there’s been challenges to those multilateral institutions, but there is still engagement and there are still those who consistently are seeking to elevate [those institutions] as well.”

Ardern’s promotion of the financial opportunities tied to climate action has put her somewhat at odds with Greta Thunberg, arguably the star of UN Leaders’ Week thanks to her excoriation of world leaders. Thunberg, in an earlier speech to the US Congress, targeted the emphasis that many politicians place on the green economy.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has taken aim at the sort of economic climate initiatives being trumpeted by Jacinda Ardern – but the Prime Minister says the economic gain is interwoven with the human benefits of climate action. Photo: Getty Images.

“This is not primarily an opportunity to create new green jobs, new businesses or green economic growth. This is above all an emergency, and not just any emergency. This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.”

The Prime Minister says that economic lens is a “byproduct” of tackling climate action, rather than the primary purpose.

“If we’re going to remove fossil fuels from our electricity generation and our energy production we have to have the alternative, and that means…you need the investment in technology and you need people with the skills to do it.

“I don’t think you can separate these out – to me, regardless or not of whether you frame it as an economic opportunity, which it is, or as a moral obligation, ultimately you need to do the same things so it’s just the way you pitch it.”

That may seem a convenient way to frame it, given reports of domestic troubles over Emissions Trading Scheme changes due in part to business anxiety, but Ardern insists it’s the truth.

“After I spoke at lunch as part of the climate summit, two people came over as I was having to exit…[and said] ‘We’re struggling with some of our issues domestically, if you’re finding a way on agriculture can you please tell us how you do it?’

“We say it’s an opportunity because it is, and because at the moment it is framed so heavily as a cost, as opposed to eventually both a savings and a value add.”

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

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