Ardern fights the tide in call for multilateral action

In her latest speech to the United Nations, Jacinda Ardern again offered a counterpoint to the ardent patriotism of Donald Trump - but with the uncertain global environment seemingly static over the last year, where to next?

A lot has changed for Jacinda Ardern and her government over the last 12 months, but if you closed your eyes and listened to her second national address to the United Nations you could almost have mistaken it for her debut.

That is not an insult: while Ardern does have shortcomings, it is clear by now that she knows how to craft and deliver a compelling speech.

Wearing a dark ensemble in contrast to last year’s white outfit, there were few shades of grey in her defence of the multilateral world order, which now seems to be under near-constant threat.

There was a “simplicity” to the idea of sovereign guardianship, Ardern said, one which failed to account for the increasing complexity of events like oil spills, which bypassed maritime boundaries.

“But our interdependence, our connection, runs so much deeper than that, and experiences in recent years should lead us all to question whether any of us ever truly operate in isolation anymore.”

It was a similar message to last year, but one given a terribly tangible edge by the March 15 terror attack and the realities New Zealand has had to deal with as a result.

Ardern spoke of the letters she received from Muslim children around the world in the wake of the attack, geographical distance no barrier to an emotional connection.

“What if we change what ‘us’ means? If instead of fierce nationalism or self-interest, we seek to form our tribes based on concepts that can and should be universal.”

“In our borderless and technologically connected world, commentary on race, acts of discrimination based on religion, gender, sexuality or ethnicity - they are not neatly confined behind boundaries. They are felt globally.”

Addressing the global nature of that problem, and finding a global solution, is at the heart of the Christchurch Call and the updates announced by Ardern at the UN this week.

But the Prime Minister has grander designs, suggesting the transnational and trans-organisational framework behind the Call could serve as a model for other knotty problems like climate change.

Teasing the announcement of a new, multi-country initiative led by New Zealand to apply trade-related tools for climate action, Ardern said the concept came with a challenge well known to many nations.

“We are being asked to make decisions that are local, but with consequences that are global. And yet, it is what climate change requires us to do.”

The need for greater reliance on one another had “collided” with a period of greater tribalism, she said, a problem which was not new but could do with a new answer.

“What if we change what ‘us’ means? If instead of fierce nationalism or self-interest, we seek to form our tribes based on concepts that can and should be universal.”

Donald Trump's talk of a "divide" between globalists and patriots illustrated the bind that smaller countries like New Zealand find themselves in. Photo: United Nations.

It was hard not to see that “fierce nationalism” on display in United States President Donald Trump’s speech earlier in the day, even though Ardern denied any explicit connection.

Trump’s delivery was lethargic, but the message was at least as pointed, if not more so, than last year’s dismissal of global governance and promotion of sovereignty.

This year, he described a “divide between those whose thirst for control deludes them into thinking they are destined to rule over others, and those people and nations who want only to rule themselves” - leaving no doubt about which camp he was in.

“The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.”

That his remarks did not create a greater stir partly reflected the larger problems surrounding his presidency, but more pertinently the fact that attacks on the established world order were now routine.

The tone of the speech neatly summed up the dilemma facing nations like New Zealand.

With massive nations like the US still caught up in the throes of nationalism, can a coalition of smaller countries shake off the sense of stasis and make meaningful change?

That is the bet Ardern is making, with the 31 new member nations of the Christchurch Call unlikely to carry much diplomatic heft individually.

Proudly independent in a global community

Speaking to media after her speech, she was quick to suggest that the practical ramifications of increased nationalism did not necessarily halt action.

“New Zealand just needs to continue to hold the perspective that I believe we’ve always held, which is that we are proudly independent, we have an independent foreign policy, an independent view, but we also see ourselves as members of a global community.”

New Zealand’s role in that global community may be growing, but it was kept in perspective by the half-empty hall which greeted Ardern’s Tuesday night (US time) speech - a similar, or even smaller, turnout to last year despite her office promoting the “primetime” slot on the first day of the General Assembly.

But quantity does not equate to quality, and the passion that she can elicit was evident in the queue of Pakistani government representatives lining up for photos with Ardern ahead of her bilateral meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The “moral authority” that Microsoft’s Brad Smith described Ardern as possessing after the March 15 attack has clearly not diminished - but is that authority enough to shift the headwinds at play on the world stage?

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