An address by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
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An address by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

On 7 July 2022, the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, gave an address at the Lowy Institute in Sydney titled A Pacific Springboard to Engage the World: New Zealand's Independent Foreign Policy.

A Pacific Springboard to Engage the World: New Zealand's Independent Foreign Policy

Te whare e tu nei

Te marae e takoto ana, tena korua

E nga mate maha, haere, haere, haere.

Nga tangata whenua o tenei rohe, tena koutou.

Tatou nga kanohi e hui mai ana,

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa

Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be with you today and to greet you in the same manner in which I would greet an audience in New Zealand.

First, I acknowledge all those here today. Those who have passed. And importantly, the mana whenua or people of the land, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I would like to extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders here with us today.

When I was asked to share a few thoughts with the prestigious Lowy Institute, I welcomed the opportunity. Afterall, I have just come off the back of trips into Asia, the United States, and Europe. Only those in Australia know as much as we do, how much thinking time that much flying represents.

And so today represents an important opportunity to reflect on a question that I myself and my cabinet colleagues have been discussing for some time, and that is: In an increasingly polarised and contested world, when the push and pull of foreign diplomacy is heightened, how do you successfully sustain a truly independent foreign policy?

I may not conclusively resolve this vexed question today, but I will at least share with you New Zealand’s perspective on it.

But first, some important scene setting.

I’m mindful that in traversing the international environment at present, it may leave everyone feeling a little bereft.

After all, in just a few short years we have seen the space in which we transact foreign policy, become increasingly difficult.

Europe is facing the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the complete disruption of the international rules based order in their region. But more than that, the sense of peace and stability that they’ve broadly experienced since the aftermath of World War Two has been shattered.

The war itself is challenging our notions of conflict and demonstrating how multifaceted warfare now is, with cyber-attacks and prolific disinformation accompanying the more traditional forms of combat.

In our region we’re observing an increasingly contested environment, and add to that the wider global impacts of an ongoing pandemic, the economic crisis that has ensued, and the powerful forces that are disrupting social cohesion and the trust people have in the institutions that serve them.

And if this isn't enough, we are yet to succeed in addressing one of the most immediate security issues in our region, that of climate change.

In a word – it’s grim out there.

But just as I confessed in a speech I gave just last week, I am an optimist at heart and remain so. The pressures we face present – yes – challenges, but also opportunities.

Opportunities, if we pull, on our own terms, in the same direction.

Last week in that same speech, this was a sentiment I touched on, but I was asked in the aftermath, what ‘on our own terms’ meant.

For me, the encapsulation of New Zealand’s foreign policy today is best summed up in three principles.

The first principle, simply put is a sense of collectivism or global cooperation.

There’s a reason why in the aftermath of World War Two, where like Australia, New Zealand suffered incredible loss of life, we were present for the establishment of the United Nations in San Francisco. We were seeking order and ballast as much as we were seeking to have a voice.

In the face of global conflict and tension, we continue to position ourselves based on the principle of upholding the rules based order through multilateral institutions. And when seeking solutions to issues, be it war or dispute, New Zealand will turn to these same institutions to act as mediator, and when necessary, as judge.

I can point to a number of examples where we have used these institutions in recent times. We did so to put on record our concerns about China’s actions in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Xinjiang; our condemnation of the military coup in Myanmar; and the threat to regional peace and stability posed by North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile tests in clear violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions.

And in many cases we have been in the company of others.

If a nation values the rules-based order, human rights, being a good and law-abiding neighbour as defined by the UN, sovereign rights no matter size, wealth or power, and a sense of shared responsibility  then it will pursue its interests accordingly, but more often than not in the company of others who share similar values and interests. 

But multilateral institutions are imperfect, and they have and will fail us. And when they do fail, our first port of call must always be to find ways to make them stronger. Equally, we cannot be left unable to respond to global challenges because we encounter dysfunction or worse, moral failings.

In recent times there has been no better example of that than the failure of the UN to appropriately respond to the war in Ukraine because of the position taken by Russia in the Security Council.

A morally bankrupt position, in the wake of a morally bankrupt, and illegal war. Under these circumstances, waiting for our multilateral institutions to act was not an option for New Zealand.

Here, when the system fails, we seek partnerships and approaches based on the second principle of our independent foreign policy – our values.

A conviction that we have a moral responsibility to do our part to maintain the rules based order. That regardless of whether a collective approach is possible, maintaining the basic values of human rights, gender equality, state sovereignty, climate action – that falls on each of us to defend and uphold. That we are increasingly interdependent on one another and are, and have always been, impacted by the choices of others.

But we of course have to recognise that these principles of collectivism or global cooperation and our values are and will always be shaped by the third principle, Place.

And our place, is in the Pacific.

The Pacific is who we are as well as where we are. It is both our identity and our place in the world.

We are a nation whose founding document between its indigenous people and the crown is known as the Treaty of Waitangi. And it’s our first nations people who have a shared voyaging history. Our people came from waka mapping the pacific, and these documents, connections and history continue to shape us as a nation.

And while I know this is not often how we are positioned, when you look at a map with New Zealand at the centre rather than at the bottom, or if we are honest, missing from the map entirely, our islands are bounded by the Pacific and Southern Oceans – and the Tasman Sea. A region with its own history, culture, and institutions – and one of the reasons when we took office we launched the Pacific reset.

For us the regional architecture of the Pacific is critical. New Zealand is committed to the Pacific Islands Forum as the vehicle for addressing regional challenges. 

To that end, Forum members have been working together to develop the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent to provide a long-term vision of what we want to achieve together for our region. 

We have a strong commitment to supporting broader ambitions for our region’s security, as set out in the Biketawa and Boe Declarations. Importantly we see local security challenges being resolved locally, with Pacific Islands Forum Members’ security being addressed first and foremost by the Forum family.

That’s because we have a history of meeting one another’s needs, including most recently through the regional deployment of personnel to Honiara to support the re-establishment of peace and stability following unrest. 

The model exists, we need to use it.

That is not to say that there will not be others who have an interest in the Pacific – there are. France, Japan, the UK, US, and China have all played a role in the Pacific for many, many years. It would be wrong to characterise this engagement, including that of China, as new. It would also be wrong to position the Pacific in such a way that they have to ‘pick sides.’ These are democratic nations with their own sovereign right to determine their foreign policy engagements. We can be country neutral in approach, but have a Pacific bias on the values we apply for these engagements. .

But Priorities should be set by the Pacific.

They should be free from coercion.

Investment should be of high quality.

And issues that affect the security of all of us, or may be seen as the militarisation of the region  should come through the PIF as set out in the Biketawa and Boe declaration, as such a change would rightly effect and concern many.

Ultimately, rather than increased strategic competition in the region though, we need instead to look for areas to build and cooperate, recognising the sovereignty and independence of those for whom the region really is home. 

And so while we each maintain our independence, and New Zealand certainly does, we are part of a family. One that is incredibly important to us and central in our decision making.

When expressing the principles of an independent foreign policy in this way, the principles of cooperation, of values and place, it would be easy to give the impression of a nice and tidy matrix from which we make decisions.

The honest reality is that the world is bloody messy. And yet, amongst all the complexity, we still often see issues portrayed in a black and white way. This is one of the challenges to an independent foreign policy. It is also a challenge for all those who seek peace and stability through dialogue and diplomacy – at a time when there is so little room for error and misunderstanding.

Let me dwell on an example.

The war in Ukraine is unquestionably illegal, and unjustifiable. Russia must be held to account, and we all have a role to play in ensuring that that happens. This is why New Zealand will intervene as a third party in Ukraine’s case against Russia in the International Court of Justice. We must reform the United Nations so that we don’t have to rely on individual countries imposing their own autonomous sanctions. We must also resource the International Criminal Court to undertake full investigations and prosecution of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine.

But in taking every possible action to respond to Russia’s aggression and to hold it to account, we must remember that fundamentally this is Russia’s war. And while there are those who have shown overt and direct support, such as Belarus, who must also see consequences for their role, let us not otherwise characterise this as a war of the west vs Russia. Or democracy vs autocracy.

It is not.

Nor should we naturally assume it is a demonstration of the inevitable trajectory in other areas of geostrategic contest.

In the wake of the tensions we see rising including in our Indo-Pacific region, diplomacy must become the strongest tool and de-escalation the loudest call. We won’t succeed, however, if those parties we seek to engage with are increasingly isolated and the region we inhabit becomes increasingly divided and polarised. We must not allow the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy to become an inevitable outcome for our region.

And that is one of the reasons, as New Zealand looks to the wider Indo Pacific, we seek to ensure that the intensity of our engagement is increasing, and we call for others to do the same.

We have legacy and interests in the Indo-Pacific. As does Australia.

Both countries have invested heavily in relationships and institutions there – not least because what happens in the Indo-Pacific impacts our neighbourhood.

It follows that we must strengthen the resilience of the Indo-Pacific through relationships and importantly economic architecture.

But it’s so often through strategic alignments – that seems to be the primary entry point for relationships. In our view, it’s economic architecture, that will truly build the resilience of our region.

Since the turn of this century New Zealand has looked for new ways to engage with those who share our trade and economic ambition – CER with Australia in 1983 as already mentioned is the world’s best example.

Witness also the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA; the ‘super-FTA-plus’ partnerships Australia and New Zealand concluded with Singapore. And more recently the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

And we are now breaking new ground with the next-generation trade agenda through initiatives such as the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade, and Sustainability which seeks to see climate related goods and services move more freely, and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement.

Our approach has always been inclusive – it means we leave the door open to others who can meet the same high standards. And that’s because trade is a bridge-builder, and a vehicle for grappling with challenges beyond the exchange of goods and services. Whether it’s climate change; subsidies for fishing and fossil fuels; improved labour conditions, or gender equality – these are all features of the progressive and inclusive trade agenda New Zealand is both practising and implementing.

At its heart, trade creates connections, mutual obligations, shared interests and joint benefits. And all those things reduce conflict, and ultimately contribute to peace and stability, and prosperity.

Trade is no longer exclusively a vehicle for economic growth – trade is a means of upholding shared values, and that extends to indigenous cooperation and inclusive economic recovery at this challenging time. No wonder then that trade is such an increasing main stay of New Zealand’s foreign policy approach.

The trade relationship we share with China, for example, continues to grow, underpinned by our bilateral FTA.  But even as China becomes more assertive in the pursuit of its interests, there are still shared interests on which we can and should cooperate. The post-war order and the rules that underpin it have supported China’s rise, and as a permanent member of the Security Council, China has a crucial role to play in upholding that order. 

And so, if these principles and ideas give you a sense of what “on our own terms” means, the second question you may ask, in which direction are we pulling?

On the long list of foreign policy priorities, there are some for New Zealand that have not changed for many decades.

Almost 50 years ago, New Zealand Prime Minister Norman Kirk said farewell to the New Zealand frigate HMNZS Otago as it sailed to Mururoa Atoll to protest against the French atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. He told the crew their mission was an “honourable” one – that they were “silent witness[es] with the power to bring alive the conscience of the world.”

We haven’t been silent since then – nor have we been passive witnesses.

In 1986 together we established the Pacific Nuclear free zone and New Zealand is a proudly nuclear free country.

Our values dictated that we had to stand up and speak out against the decades of nuclear testing in the Pacific. Opposing nuclear weapons is now a central tenet of New Zealand’s foreign policy.

The effects of nuclear testing in the Pacific are ongoing today and New Zealand is supportive of collective regional action on this issue.

We have joined a Pacific Islands Forum Taskforce to take forward the nuclear legacy issues, which I look forward to discussing with other Leaders at our meetings in Suva next week.

This is no theoretical or purely regional issue either. As I said at NATO recently we cannot allow a consequence of the conflict in Ukraine to be the further escalation of a nuclear arms race. After all, mutually assured destruction is nonetheless still destruction  

I’d like to acknowledge here that New Zealand was pleased to welcome Australia as an observer to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the First Meeting of States’ Parties recently. New Zealand is a strong supporter of the treaty which makes it illegal for those who join to have nuclear weapons.

Fifty years after Kirk, nuclear disarmament remains a priority for us.

But some of the challenges we faced today, did not even exist 50 years ago. And that means some of the answers to them may not be best addressed by traditional tools.

As we confront a growing number of digital challenges and opportunities, we need to think beyond traditional multilateralism, to how we build smart multi-stakeholder coalitions, where Governments work with civil society and industry on a shared problem set.

This was our approach when a radicalised white supremacist attacked two Christchurch mosques in March 2019, killing 51 people and injuring dozens.

We knew that what was needed was a strong global response. What we came up with was the Christchurch Call to Action.

The Christchurch Call has galvanised both significant policy change, and action by tech platforms to upgrade crisis readiness, share capabilities across the sector and work with the Call Community to address terrorist and violent extremist content online.

The call has made great progress in the three years it has existed, but it’s incumbent on us as a co-founder of the call to continue to see its ambition realised. And that is as important now as it has ever been. That’s why it will continue to be a priority, and why we will continue to innovate in the way we build partnerships to address the challenges we face.

This in itself is a bit of a change to our traditional statecraft and the institutions that uphold it. We have to be prepared to go out of our comfort zone and invest the time and resources to ensure civil society, business and indigenous populations are genuinely engaged.

That approach is especially important when it comes to climate change.

I know I have said this many times, but it feels important to me, given the emphasis we have put on place, to point out that for every Pacific Island Forum I have had the privilege of attending, climate change has by far and away dominated the discussion.

And that’s because it is not a challenge on paper.

A few years ago I had what I believe will be one of the greatest experiences of my life – visiting every atoll of Tokelau. Tokelau is a realm country of New Zealand, made up of three atolls that are accessed via a more than 24 hour long journey by sea from Samoa. Not too many people have the luck to go. But that doesn’t mean we should take an out of sight out of mind approach to their reality.

Tokelau is low lying. Some of their burial grounds are coastal. They have already had the devastating job of contemplating the relocation of grave sites in order to stop their ancestors washing away. The water has already begun to take out the coastal wall we helped to create to slow down this inundation. And as weather events increase, I cannot tell you how much concern I have over the ability of us to reach this beautiful place and its wonderful people in a timely way.

Climate change must be a foreign policy priority. While we all have a concern, and rightly so, about any moves towards militarisation of our region, that must surely be matched by a concern for those who experience the violence of climate change.

There are many who wish to support the region’s mitigation efforts.

And it’s why we have committed $1.3 billion over four years towards climate change with at least 50 percent going to the Pacific. But there is an opportunity in my mind for the Pacific Island Forum to play a role in establishing region wide mitigation projects that climate funding can support. Not every external aid and development donor will have the capability to access our neighbours individually, we need to look to the role we can play to bring in that support on the terms the pacific sets, and the PIF is a great way to do that.

And all of this needs to happen because ultimately, this is our home.

And that makes you, our cousins.

But more importantly, over many years, it has made you our friend.

You are our second largest trading partner. You are our only formal ally. You are our largest market for foreign direct investment. 40 percent of arrivals into New Zealand in 2019 were from Australia.  It’s lucky we like you so much.

We share our people, our problems and our solutions.

In fact, when we look to our principles; cooperation, values and place – we naturally find you within them. We won’t always agree, and nor should we. But it’s true that in the messy world we live, friendship matters.

Where there is a commitment to work collaboratively, where there is commitment to uphold the values that ensure progress comes not at the expense of another, and where there is commitment to respecting place, then there is friendship to be found, and progress to be made.

These are the foundations upon which New Zealand has been able to prioritise and make progress in areas that are not just good for the Pacific, but we hope, good for the world – be it through trade policy, efforts to tackle climate change, disarmament or talking on new challenges like online hate.

And so, in this messy world, still full of opportunities and optimism, I hope you will find us both, on our own terms, pulling in the same direction.

ka toia te waka!


Areas of expertise: Strategy and geopolitics; global governance; Australian foreign policy; Southeast Asia; Data analysis