Jacinda Ardern’s Outsized Foreign Policy Legacy

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Jacinda Ardern’s Outsized Foreign Policy Legacy

The New Zealand PM has announced her resignation, but her impact on the country’s diplomacy will continue to resonate.

Jacinda Ardern’s Outsized Foreign Policy Legacy
Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

On January 19, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that she was resigning. “I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she told reporters in the surprise announcement.

Ardern had an outsized impact on New Zealand’s international relations during her five-plus years in office. While all prime ministers travel internationally, Ardern’s calendar was fuller than most.

In many ways, Ardern was her own foreign minister – and she largely overshadowed her second and only Labor Party foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta.

Ardern’s first major foreign trip came within weeks of her election in 2017, to the APEC summit in Vietnam. The meeting gave Ardern her first in-person encounter with then-U.S. President Donald Trump. She famously told him that “no one marched when I was elected” after Trump suggested she had “caused a lot of upset” in New Zealand.

Ardern was often cast as the “anti-Trump” figure by commentators during the first years of her premiership, and her comments at her first U.N. General Assembly in 2018 seemed to fulfil that expectation. Ardern told her audience in New York that “in the face of isolationism, protectionism, racism – the simple concept of looking outwardly and beyond ourselves, of kindness and collectivism, might just be as good a starting point as any.”

By the end of 2018, Ardern was already a well-known international figure. But in international relations terms, it was Ardern’s compassionate reaction to the March 15 mosque attacks of 2019 that probably opened diplomatic doors the most.

A major outcome of the attacks was the “Christchurch Call” to remove terrorist and violent extremist material from the internet. Ardern launched the initiative in partnership with French President Emmanuel Macron at a summit in Paris in May 2019. Initially attracting 17 countries and a handful of technology companies as signatories, the non-binding Christchurch Call became a quiet success. It has endured well beyond the immediate aftermath of the mosque tragedy itself.

The campaign now counts 58 countries and 12 companies among a total of 120 signatories. It is probably the biggest single foreign policy legacy of Ardern to date – and a tribute to her consensus style of foreign policymaking.

Ardern’s final trip before the pandemic, in February 2020, showed that she could also bring a hard edge to her diplomacy. Speaking alongside then-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Sydney, Ardern had harsh words for New Zealand’s neighbor. Australia’s deportations of New Zealand citizens – including those who had lived in Australia for their entire lives – with criminal convictions rankled. Ardern told Morrison, “Send back Kiwis. Genuine Kiwis. Do not deport your people and your problems.”

Once the pandemic hit, New Zealand’s initially successful elimination strategy for COVID-19 supercharged Ardern’s international visibility. At the same time, the tough border restrictions that made the approach possible also put an end to Ardern’s international travel for over two years.

New Zealand’s once-in-a-generation chance to host APEC – which brings together leaders from around the Pacific Rim – became an all-virtual affair in 2021. This took away the main opportunity during her premiership for Ardern to host world leaders in New Zealand itself.

Despite Ardern’s international popularity, Sanna Marin – the Finnish prime minister who shares some political similarities to Ardern – was one of the few world leaders who visited the New Zealand prime minister at home.

Still, Ardern embraced virtual diplomacy. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not uncommon for her to namecheck world leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, with whom she had been holding late-night phone calls, due to time zone differences.

One example of successful virtual diplomacy was a special emergency virtual summit called by Ardern in July 2021 on the COVID-19 response. It is to Ardern’s credit that leaders from Russia, China, and the United States agreed to participate in an unusual second APEC leaders’ meeting, at a time of rising geopolitical tension.

As 2022 began, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced Ardern to shift New Zealand’s long-standing opposition to autonomous sanctions. The Russia Sanctions Act was announced and shepherded through Parliament in a matter of days in early March.

In the following months, the invasion of Ukraine saw Ardern align New Zealand’s foreign policy more closely with the U.S.-led Western bloc supporting Kyiv.

This also had consequences in the Pacific, where China’s shock signing of a security deal with Solomon Islands ruffled feathers in Wellington in March 2022. Despite New Zealand’s heavy reliance on China for trade, Ardern quickly fell in line with Australia’s outspoken opposition to the arrangement.

A visit to meet U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House followed at the end of May 2022 – after which an unusually hawkish joint statement was issued with the United States. Ardern then headed to Europe to participate as a guest of NATO at the alliance’s summit in Madrid in June.

A reward came from the EU in the form of a free trade deal signed in Brussels. The deal was not as good as it first appeared, but it was still a deal – and it came on top of a much-heralded free trade agreement signed with the United Kingdom in 2021. The free trade agreements will go down on Ardern’s slate of foreign policy achievements – as will an upgrade to a free trade deal with China in early 2022.

China always remained Ardern’s biggest foreign policy challenge – and one that she never quite mastered. An inaugural visit by Ardern to Beijing was repeatedly delayed by the Chinese side, who seemed unhappy at New Zealand’s more U.S.-friendly moves under the “Pacific Reset” agenda pushed by Winston Peters, Ardern’s foreign minister from 2017-2020. Ardern’s first and only visit to Beijing in April 2019 lasted for just 24 hours. The visit had been cut back from a lengthier stay because Ardern wanted to return to New Zealand to deal with the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks.

A follow-up visit was always planned – but ultimately never came. In December 2022, Ardern announced she planned to travel to China on a “trade mission” once China’s zero COVID rules had eased.

China’s restrictions are now gone. Travel is now possible. But Jacinda Ardern has left the world stage – at least for now.

This article was originally published by the Democracy Project, which aims to enhance New Zealand’s democracy and public life by promoting critical thinking, analysis, debate, and engagement on politics and society.