Jacinda Ardern gets doors opened. Not just for her and her ministers, but for industry bosses too.

The members of the business delegation that travelled to the United States with the Prime Minister are by no means small players in their respective industries.

Zespri, Auckland International Airport, Tourism New Zealand, Silver Fern Farms are all run by high-powered, successful chief executives.

Yet the overwhelming message from all of them at the end of their week in the US was how influential Ardern had been in getting them into the room with people they never dreamed possible.

The BlackRock meeting in New York left some in the delegation almost speechless.

They expected some middle manager to be at the table but they got Larry Fink, the chief executive of a multi-billion-dollar manager of investment funds.

Then there were the meetings with tech companies in Seattle, which doubled as a business opportunity while also progressing work on the Christchurch Call.

Microsoft president and vice chair Brad Smith spent 10 minutes waxing lyrical about Ardern at a reception held at the Seattle Aquarium last week. He wrapped up his speech saying she was one of the greatest leaders in the world.

That’s high praise from a tech giant talking about a country on the other side of the world with a population of five million.

Kiwis like to see their own do well on the global stage – whether it be in the sporting, arts or even the political realm. There’s a sense of pride and patriotism about them succeeding when home is often so small and far away.

On this particular trip, Ardern hit all three of her targets – establishing tourism, business, and political opportunities.

From the audience of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the promotion of Silver Fern Farms’ carbon-zero beef, to the meeting with US President Joe Biden, Ardern’s star shone bright.

But not everyone sees benefit in that, especially when there‘s a cost-of-living crisis at home and people are making daily decisions between filling up the car or putting food on the table.

It’s only when diplomacy gets done in full view overseas, and is broadcast back to people’s living rooms and mobile phones, that people notice it – and if things aren’t going well at home, it can grate for some.

Foreign affairs’ wins and New Zealand’s international brand go on the backburner when the focus is so firmly on surviving from one pay cheque to the next at home.

That doesn’t mean fostering international relationships should grind to a halt, but it means the ‘give a damn’ factor for the public significantly reduces.

This isn’t something only Ardern has encountered: it was exactly the same at times for John Key and Helen Clark, and leaders in other countries such as Canada’s Justin Trudeau.

For the most part, foreign affairs is done behind the scenes, and doesn’t affect people’s lives or opinions of their leader because of that lack of awareness.

It’s only when diplomacy gets done in full view overseas, and is broadcast back to people’s living rooms and mobile phones, that people notice it – and if things aren’t going well at home, it can grate for some.

In the 1News Kantar public poll that came out while Ardern was in Washington DC, the gap between her and National Party leader Christopher Luxon had narrowed to eight percentage points for preferred prime minister.

Ardern was down one point to 33 while Luxon was holding steady on 25 percentage points.

It’s Ardern’s lowest result since before she was Prime Minister and Luxon’s score is the highest for a National Party leader since former Prime Minister Sir Bill English.

National was steady on 39 percent and Labour dropped two points to sit on 35 percent.

There’s nothing to suggest the poll result reflected Ardern being in the US; many voters probably didn’t even realise she was.

But for voters who are engaged in news and are doing it tough and haven’t made up their mind yet about next year’s election, they may see the Prime Minister doing a talk show in New York and wonder what that says.

There’s no easy way for the Government to navigate that either. It is the role of the Prime Minister to be the country’s ambassador and open up trade opportunities through fostering good international relationships, and that can’t be done from home.

A meeting with the President at the White House is a big deal for New Zealand’s US relations, especially in the current Indo-Pacific climate with China’s increasing influence in the region.

Yet some Kiwis will look at it and say, “What’s in it for me?”. The short answer is not a lot – at least for now.

Foreign affairs is a long game, and often the tangibles aren’t seen for some time.

Ardern’s international travel diary only ramps up over the next six months, as she plays catch up on face-to-face meetings with like-minded countries and attends summits that have been postponed for the past two years.

Being at the table at the United Nations and WTO, for example, is necessary, especially when the global political and security environment is so shaky and friends are more pivotal than ever.

Ardern’s government was criticised by some foreign policy watchers last year as having become too insular – getting back out in the world now that leaders can is important, but not frustrating voters back home in the process is a tightrope.

Labour didn’t get the post-Budget bump it hoped for and the price of food, fuel, and services will only continue to increase in the coming months as global inflation persists.

As the Prime Minister continues to spend more time out of the country, it will be up to her senior ministers to hold the fort at home – and for Ardern to prove it is worth it.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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