New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s trip to the United States this week has been months in the making.
A stop in Washington, D.C. is already locked in, but Ardern’s recent positive test for COVID-19 has delayed the official announcement of a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. Reports now suggest Ardern is likely to call at the White House next week.
New Zealand’s breakdown in relations with the United States in the 1980s over Labor’s nuclear-free policy – which led to Washington suspending its obligations to Wellington under the ANZUS defense alliance in 1986 – means that any top-level engagement carries particular significance.
A visit to the White House is a symbolic carrot like no other.
While some aspects of U.S. foreign policy are at the mercy of Congress, White House visits can be given and taken away simply on a president’s whim. They are a reminder of the importance of personal rapport in foreign policy, but history shows how they are also useful barometers for judging the overall health of diplomatic relationships.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States sought to turn the page on its decades-old falling-out with New Zealand by embarking on a series of rapprochement efforts. These included the resumption of full intelligence sharing with New Zealand in 2009, the signing of a “Wellington Declaration” in 2010 and the re-inclusion of New Zealand in joint military exercises from 2012 onwards.
These substantive developments were essential. But visually, and as a personal way of drawing a line under the problems of the past, arguably the greatest impact was made by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Wellington in 2010 and Prime Minister John Key’s trips to the White House in 2011 and 2014. On top of these formal visits, Key and Obama also forged an informal relationship built on playing golf together in Hawaii.
With the historic New Zealand-United States rift now all but healed, Donald Trump’s presidency from 2017-2021 and the COVID-19 pandemic explain why Ardern – who has been New Zealand’s prime minister since 2017 – has had to wait much longer than Key for an invitation to visit the White House.
If the White House visit goes ahead as planned, Ardern and Biden will have much to talk about.
As has been the case since early 2020, COVID-19 will be a helpful conversation starter. Ardern’s international reputation has been enhanced by her government’s handling of the pandemic. During her time in the United States Ardern will deliver the commencement address at Harvard University – a testament to her sterling reputation overseas. The fact that Ardern recently tested positive herself – which could still derail their meeting altogether – will only add to any discussion of coronavirus strategies.
However, Western unity over Ukraine has now largely displaced COVID-19 as common ground. Rather than a virus, the shared enemy is now Vladimir Putin. And in the week after Russia’s invasion, Biden was careful to cite New Zealand twice in speeches when referring to the strength of Western unity. The name-checking – including in his prominent State of the Union address – reflected genuine appreciation for New Zealand’s solidarity, but was perhaps also a tactical move to encourage Wellington to provide even more practical support.
If so, he was very successful: Ardern repeatedly increased New Zealand’s assistance to Kyiv throughout March and April. She also shepherded the Russia Sanctions Act through Parliament to punish Moscow for its invasion – an unusual and precedent-setting step for New Zealand to take.
Ardern’s announcement on April 11 that New Zealand would contribute 7.5 million New Zealand dollars to purchase weapons for Ukraine – along with a C-130 Hercules aircraft and 50 military personnel to help with transport within Europe – was Wellington’s most significant commitment to date. It brought New Zealand’s total assistance – mainly prioritizing military support, with a smaller humanitarian aid component – to a total of NZ$30 million (US$19 million).
It remains to be seen whether Ardern uses the U.S. trip to announce further support for Ukraine. Much has happened since she made her “lethal aid” announcement six weeks ago – a lifetime in war terms. Russia’s withdrawal from its fronts around Kyiv and Kharkiv has only hardened the collective resolve of the West. The aim now is to bring about Ukraine’s total victory against Russia, rather than any negotiated peace.
To this end, Biden’s signing of a US$40 billion aid bill for Ukraine over the weekend may put further pressure on Ardern to spend more. After all, even on a per capita basis, the equivalent contribution from New Zealand would be approaching an eye-watering NZ$1 billion.
While it is neither realistic nor expected that New Zealand will provide anything close to this amount, the enormous discrepancy will probably provide some leverage. After all, Ardern has already shifted her position twice on bigger matters of principle – sanctions and lethal aid. The prime minister may find it hard to turn down a request from Biden for New Zealand to spend more.
Beyond Ukraine, China will be high on the agenda. The stage-setter for Ardern’s visit to Washington was Biden’s visit to South Korea and Japan and the holding of the second in-person leaders’ meeting of the Quad grouping in Tokyo this week. Both the Asia trip and the Quad itself – made up of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – are ways for the U.S. to signal an increasingly aggressive response to China in the Indo-Pacific.
Indeed, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby was unmistakably frank when he was asked last week about the purpose of Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan. Kirby called the trip “a terrific opportunity for the President to show how much we’re prioritizing those two relationships” against the backdrop of “China’s coercion and intimidation in the region.”
With boldness in geopolitics now very much in favor, Biden might even ask Ardern to align New Zealand with the Quad more formally, perhaps as part of the already-trialed “Quad plus” format.
If the U.S. president wants to bring New Zealand further into the Western fold, he might find his hand strengthened by the weekend’s change in Australia’s leadership. During the election campaign, incoming Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called China’s security deal with Solomon Islands a “major foreign policy failure by Australia” – a sign that he is going to continue to talk tough when it comes to Beijing.
But despite the campaign rhetoric, Albanese may strike a slightly different tone on foreign affairs that proves more amendable to Ardern. Albanese’s promise to “build a stronger Pacific family” by focusing on development in the Pacific will largely put Australia on the same page as New Zealand.
Another Albanese plan – establishing a “Pacific defense school” to train the militaries of smaller Pacific states – would comfortably fit into New Zealand’s own new foreign policy doctrine of “Pacific resilience.”
Jacinda Ardern is going to Washington. The Pacific’s geopolitical jigsaw puzzle is travelling with her.
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.