New Zealand’s new outbreak of COVID-19 has stalled an attempt to restart the country’s top-level diplomatic engagement. Given the Delta variant’s spread in Auckland, a rumored trip to the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is now all but off the table.
It is the second time this year that the coronavirus has got in the way of the prime minister resuming international travel. A trade mission to Sydney in July was cancelled following the resurgence of COVID-19 in Australia and the suspension of its travel bubble with New Zealand.
New Zealand’s foreign minister is not travelling either – Nanaia Mahuta has yet to announce her first overseas trip, 10 months after she was appointed to the role following last year’s election.
Damien O’Connor, the trade minister, remains the only New Zealand government minister who has travelled abroad on official business since February 2020. In June, O’Connor visited Brussels, London, Paris, and Singapore on a trip that focused mainly on shoring up New Zealand’s free trade negotiations with the U.K. and the EU, neither of which had been going particularly well. With reports suggesting a deal with the U.K. is now well advanced, O’Connor’s mission appears to have been worthwhile.
Why aren’t more New Zealand government ministers travelling?
One reason is practical – under the government’s COVID-19 restrictions, all travelers entering New Zealand must first spend 14 days in a managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facility. There are no exceptions. Effectively, this means even a relatively short overseas trip will take a minister away from the public eye for weeks.
The government could perhaps spare O’Connor – a less high-profile minister – for his trade diplomacy. But the situation is more difficult for Mahuta. In addition to foreign affairs, Mahuta also holds the local government portfolio, an area in which the government is undertaking major reforms.
Of course, political sensitivities undoubtedly also play a major role. Ardern knows that images of globetrotting ministers could easily leave a sour taste in voters’ mouths – even if the travel serves New Zealand’s wider interests.
Most New Zealanders are still effectively barred from travelling abroad themselves – given the slow vaccine roll-out and lack of hotel MIQ space. Indeed, the latter has become something of sore point – especially given the large number of New Zealanders abroad who are desperately trying to get back home.
Both Mahuta and Ardern have made good use of the opportunities afforded to them by the rise of virtual diplomacy. One key advantage has been the ability to “attend” far more meetings than ever would be possible in-person – and often ones arranged at short notice.
Since the end of July alone, Mahuta has held virtual meetings with her counterparts from Brunei, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, the UAE, and the U.K. – and she has participated remotely in multilateral events organized by ASEAN, the Five Eyes, and the Pacific Islands Forum.
For her own online diplomacy, Ardern ran an emergency APEC summit on COVID-19 in July and co-chaired a Christchurch Call summit with French President Emmanuel Macron in May. She has also virtually addressed the U.S Council on Foreign Relations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, while bilateral online meetings have included a call with Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.
But diplomacy by Zoom call may have run its course. As vaccines have become more widely available, more foreign ministers and leaders have begun to resume their usual travel schedules.
Even Australia – which has similar strict quarantine requirements to New Zealand for incoming travelers – has been back in the face-to-face diplomatic game for some time. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison travelled to France, Singapore, and the U.K. in June. Foreign Minister Marise Payne has made several trips abroad since the start of the pandemic – including to New Zealand itself, as well as to Japan, Switzerland, the U.K, and the U.S.
Payne and the Australian defense minister, Peter Dutton, are now reportedly planning to travel later this month to India, Indonesia, and the United States for talks with their respective counterparts. According to the ABC, Morrison himself may also travel to the U.S. in September for an inaugural leaders’ summit of the “Quad” grouping, which also includes India and Japan.
Further afield, international diplomatic travel is booming, especially at foreign minister level. In June, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab made a major post-Brexit tour of Cambodia, Singapore, and Vietnam, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently visited India and Kuwait. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, has also travelled extensively across Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.
It’s not just the bigger players that are back on the diplomatic circuit. Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s foreign minister, has visited several neighboring countries such as Indonesia, as well as Italy. Israel’s Yair Lapid this month made a historic trip to Morocco – the first since a peace deal was signed between the two countries last year.
Larger gatherings have been less common, given COVID-19 uncertainties. Still, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosted the G-7 summit in Cornwall to much fanfare in June. The event was immediately followed by NATO’s summit in Brussels, which made headlines for its declaration of China as a major threat. Last weekend saw a major conference of Middle Eastern leaders and foreign ministers in Baghdad, a useful attempt at defusing regional tensions. The event was also attended by France’s Macron.
The attraction of face-to-face diplomatic encounters is obvious – especially when negotiations or deal-making of any significance are required. O’Connor’s trade mission to Europe earlier this year only proved this point, with the trade minister himself emphasizing the “real value” that his in-person meetings had added.
In a briefing to Mahuta when she took up her role, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade staff warned the new minister that “establishing and maintaining relationships in the virtual environment is much harder.”
Indeed, Mahuta only needs to consider her immediate predecessor, Winston Peters, to understand the value of face-to-face diplomacy. Peters was known for his personal touch – he often hosted foreign dignitaries at his own private home in Auckland. Return invitations – such as to a G-20 summit in Japan – often emerged as the immediate reward, both for Peters personally and for New Zealand’s interests.
Ultimately, diplomacy is as much about building trust and personal relationships on the sidelines as it is about tackling formal agendas.
With Ardern’s trip to the U.N. now a non-starter, the COP26 climate change conference in Scotland later this year may be the next major opportunity for New Zealand to reboot its top-level diplomatic efforts. Government ministers would be prime candidates to trial a new self-isolation home quarantine scheme that is planned to start in October.
COVID-19 has made virtual diplomacy a necessity. But New Zealand needs to get back around the world’s top diplomatic tables.
This article was originally published by the Democracy Project, which aims to enhance New Zealand democracy and public life by promoting critical thinking, analysis, debate, and engagement on politics and society.