Bryce Edwards: Ardern scatters diplomatic stardust in New York

Bryce Edwards: Ardern scatters diplomatic stardust in New York

Jacinda Ardern’s diplomatic trip to New York has been a success. She participated in at least 32 notable events, including a large number of bilateral meetings, and gave nine speeches. And she showed once again what an asset she is for New Zealand on the world stage.

Her final appearance, this afternoon, was on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert – see Derek Cheng’s Jacinda Ardern to make cameo appearance on Colbert show.

New Zealand journalists were taken along for the recording of the show this morning, and Cheng reports on the light-hearted chat between the host and the prime minister, in which she joked about her time “trying to save the world” at the UN this week. The article also reports on the praise she received backstage from Hollywood actor Renee Zellweger over her handling of the Christchurch terrorist attacks.

Cheng outlines the rest of Ardern’s busy three days in New York: “She has rubbed shoulders with the world’s most powerful leaders, including US President Donald Trump, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, as well as tech executives including Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, Microsoft president Brad Smith and Twitter boss Jack Dorsey.”

There have been some important announcements by Ardern. The most substantial was the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability (ACCTS) at the United Nations today – see Derek Cheng’s Jacinda Ardern in New York: Only five countries sign up for NZ’s trade agreement to tackle climate change. This relates to removing trade tariffs on environmental goods such as wind turbine parts and solar panels, while also trying to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.

Reactions haven’t been all that positive, so far – especially with so few countries signing up. Long-time climate change blogger, No Right Turn has suggested the size and scope of the measure isn’t that impressive – see: Climate Change: Meh.

Here’s his main point: “if this is as ambitious as the leaders of the five supposedly most ambitious countries can get, it’s really not very ambitious at all – just a restatement of former principles. If these five ‘high ambition’ countries wanted to actually lead, they’d be drafting a fossil-fuel non-proliferation treaty instead. instead, they’ve chosen to take the easy bits of that regime, without the actual meaningful commitment.”

Overall, however, Ardern’s speeches on climate change have been well received. You can read her first two speeches to the United Nations Climate Change Summit here: ‘No one has the luxury of copping out’: Jacinda Ardern speaks to the UN about climate change.

Some, however, have questioned whether all these fine words in New York actually match the reality of what Ardern’s government are achieving back home. Today former Cabinet Minister Peter Dunne says: “It is one thing to parade virtue on the international stage, but something else to have to match it to domestic reality. How much longer the government can get away with this game of two stories remains to be seen. In the absence of effective and decisive action, and any evidence of progress, it is going to become increasingly difficult to maintain the pretence” – see: Ardern’s rhetoric on climate change not matched by domestic reality.

There are some signs that Ardern’s promise of bringing agriculture into the ETS might not happen – see Thomas Coughlan and Luke Malpass’ Jacinda Ardern feted abroad, but Emissions Trading Scheme extension in trouble at home. According to this, previous “plans had stalled after ministers within the patchwork government were unable to agree on the details.”

Explaining the situation today, Richard Harman writes on the Politik website that “a group of agriculture organisations have made significant progress in getting the three parties that make up the Government to accept their proposal for a self-regulatory approach to farm emissions rather than the ETS over the next five years” – see: Ardern hints at climate change compromise.

Trump and Trade

For many, Ardern’s greatest New York triumph was her meeting with US President Donald Trump. Not a lot came out of the highly anticipated event. Derek Cheng reported that “Ardern emerged from the meeting – for which media were banned – at the InterContinental Hotel with warm smiles and high praise for Trump” – see: Jacinda Ardern in New York: What she discussed with Donald Trump.

Trump himself retweeted the above article, adding “True. A wonderful meeting!” Clearly the President appreciated the meeting and was able to use it show his ability to get on with another ally.

Given that Ardern wasn’t able to substantively bring up issues of climate change or indeed any of the other problems she might have with Trump’s actions, it raises the question of whether Ardern should have put herself in the position of meeting Trump in the first place. Elsewhere, political leaders are refusing to meet with him. For example, Ardern’s Labour Party counterpart in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, spoke out this week against Trump, especially regarding his orientation to climate change and proclaimed: “Let’s have no more if this hand-holding of Donald Trump.”

Earlier in the year Corbyn refused the invitation to go to a state banquet for Trump at Buckingham Palace, saying “Theresa May should not be rolling out the red carpet for a state visit to honour a president who rips up vital international treaties, backs climate change denial and uses racist and misogynist rhetoric”. And he wasn’t the only one to refuse to go – both the House of Commons speaker John Bercow and the Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable also rejected offers to meet with Trump.

So, was Ardern’s meeting with Trump a mistake? Probably not for more conservative voters, who would see this as successful diplomacy. Ardern simply did what is traditionally expected of prime ministers, and appeasement of powerful leaders is part of that game. However, some on the left might feel let down by this approach, as I wrote about for the Guardian – see: Ardern was supposed to be the anti-Trump, but she failed to speak truth to power.

Here’s the main point: “Ardern’s meeting ticked the usual objectives for a New Zealand prime minister meeting the US president. Business as usual has been achieved. Therein lies the problem for Ardern. Ardern isn’t supposed to be a traditional PM. She came to power riding a wave of enthusiasm for being different. Jacindamania was based on the expectation that she would do politics differently and would reject business as usual.”

Of course, it could be argued that it would have been futile or undiplomatic for Ardern to take any other approach than to appease Trump. But it’s worth looking at to what commentators and politicians said back when Bill English was prime minister and had to navigate issues with Trump – see my political roundup from that time: Bill English loses the Trump immigration debate. At the time, English was rightly skewered for his approach for trying to keep onside with the Americans by playing nice.

Prior to Ardern’s meeting this week, former Cabinet Minister Laila Harré spoke on TVNZ’s Q+A programme, saying “Ardern has an obligation, not just as New Zealand prime minister but as an important leader in the Pacific to raise the US’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement, in her meeting with Mr Trump” – see: ‘Disingenuous’ for Ardern to raise free trade deal with Trump says former MP, unionist Laila Harré.

Harré feared that instead of using the meeting to discuss climate change, the PM would instead concentrate on furthering New Zealand’s trade interests, saying if that happened then she’d be “disappointed by that”. Furthermore, “It’s either disingenuous of her to put a free trade agreement on the agenda with this president, or it’s worse”.

Of course, although there was plenty of admiration from the likes of Business New Zealand for Ardern having furthered New Zealand’s trade interests, others have voiced concern about whether such a deal would be good for New Zealand. For example, the NBR’s Brent Edwards argued that such a deal was extremely unlikely, given Trump’s highly protectionist stance – see: Cost of US free-trade deal might be too high (paywalled).

Brent Edwards says that even if a deal was on offer, it would be likely to be a bad one for this country: “And if Trump is keen on free trade talks, would New Zealand be stupid enough to engage? Trump makes a point of looking at trade flows. Countries that export more to the US than they import are not at the top of his list. As he imposes more restrictions on trade, he is hardly looking for deals that would make it easier for countries to export to the US. Trump’s America First policy means there is little in it for the other partner in the negotiation, particularly one as small as New Zealand compared with the economic powerhouse that is the US.”

Similarly, see an earlier column from Hamish Rutherford: Why seeking a free trade deal with Donald Trump’s US is a waste of time.

Finally, the media were barred from the Ardern-Trump meeting, but that didn’t stop two satirists imagining what was said – see The Civilian’s Trump repeatedly asked Ardern if New Zealand gives asylum very often, and James Elliott’s Jacinda and Donald – a transcript.