The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, challenged the forces of isolationism, protectionism and racism in her speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
The seventy-third annual session of the United Nations General Assembly opened in September. The session is an opportunity for all 193 nations that are members of the UN to speak about matters of international importance.
The speakers are mostly leaders of their countries or ministers in charge of their foreign affairs. For many, it is a treasured opportunity to talk of matters of importance. Others use it to brag or attack.
On Tuesday 25 September the world’s most powerful leader, Donald Trump – burly, tinged with orange and projecting synthetic suavity – boasted of power, strength, success and record military spending. In a forum where once it was hoped nations would talk of matters of common interest and community, he promoted patriotism.
Three days later from stage left came Jacinda Ardern, a vision of modern young motherhood – dark, petite, a broad genuine smile. She brought her baby Neve to the UN where she was given her own UN security pass calling her “New Zealand’s First Baby”. Ardern spoke of kindness and collectivism.
Coverage in the international media shows that the contrast between Trump and Ardern was obvious to many observers. The regime in the White House is heavily influenced by hard line activists like National Security Advisor John Bolton who sat in the General Assembly as Trump rejected globalism and spoke of unfairness in international trade.
Ardern spoke passionately about the need to work collectively to solve global problems and she described how her government seeks to make its little corner of the world better for its people.
Trump was passionate in his own way, rejecting globalism, embracing patriotism and pride, defending the purity of American sovereignty and reviling socialism and communism which he said always led to corruption and decay. He said that if all the world were patriotic then all countries would be great again.
Ardern pointed out that the United Nations was formed after a second disastrous World War so nations could work together for peace, yet the debate is often about whether the international institutions are still relevant.
The US President in his speech rejected the authority of international institutions like the International Criminal Court for threatening U.S. sovereignty and last year he pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Ardern said the nature and impact of the global challenges being faced today show the clear need for collective action and multilateralism. On globalisation and trade she said the benefits have not been sufficiently shared. While there has been unprecedented global economic growth many people have faced dislocation, isolation and an erosion of hope.
Trump spoke of losing millions of jobs and thousands of factories. His response though included the imposition of tariffs, the threat of trade war, isolationism and patriotism.
Ardern said the correct response is not to repeat the mistakes of the past and be seduced by the false promises of protectionism, but to work together to ensure the benefits of trade are distributed fairly across society. “It is incumbent on us to build productive, sustainable, inclusive economies and demonstrate to our peoples that when done right, international economic integration can make us all better off.”
She repeated the message in different ways. She spoke of the need to recommit to multilateralism, the need to redouble efforts to work as a global community, to rediscover the belief in the value of connectedness and the need to demonstrate that collective international action not only works but it is in the best interests of nations.
She had some specific issues in mind. Climate change is the issue most in need of multilateral action but individual governments also need to act. The New Zealand government has already halted the issue of any more gas and oil prospecting licences and has consulted on significant new legislation to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. There are plans to plant a billion trees in New Zealand in the next ten years and the government has set a goal of totally renewable energy generation by 2035.
She said the way to deal with global problems was not to retreat into isolationism but to find solutions. The United Nations is central to the multilateral system but needs to be reformed. Ardern said the Security Council needs to be updated so it is not hamstrung by the current use of the veto.
Of great personal interest to Ardern is the nurturing of the next generation. She told the General Assembly that her government has set the goal of becoming the best place in the world to be a child. The government will assess material deprivation and other measures and report the numbers every year at budget time. She said this kind of accountability needs to be employed in upholding the universal values on which the United Nations was founded. Among them is equality.
Ardern is the third woman to be Prime Minister of New Zealand which in 1893 became the first country in the world where women could vote in Parliamentary elections. Ardern said she would never celebrate the historic and current gains made for women in New Zealand when internationally women and girls experience a lack of the most basic opportunities and dignity. Delegates applauded when Ardern said that “Me Too must become We Too.”
These views are in direct opposition to the misogynistic administration in Washington DC where in 2017 President Trump disbanded the White House Council on Women and Girls. He said it was “redundant”.
Ardern said kindness and collectivism are key principles in promoting and defending an open, inclusive and rules-based international order based on universal values.
It is possible Ardern’s words weren’t intended as a rebuttal of Trump’s speech of three days previously. However her optimistic and enlightened approach was in stark contrast to Trump’s description of a darker more dangerous world.
Max Hayton is a former political journalist and foreign editor in New Zealand.