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Five things to know about Jacinda Ardern’s trip to the U.S. this week

New Zealand’s prime minister is eager for a trade deal — and wants to discuss online extremism

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's prime minister, during a news conference in Wellington, New Zealand, in April 2021. (Mark Coote/Bloomberg News)

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will visit the United States this week, her first visit since the pandemic began. She’s widely heralded as a progressive and effective leader, and it’s with this profile that she’s scheduled to give the May 26 commencement speech at Harvard University.

Her recent bout of covid-19 has meant a meeting with President Biden is uncertain, though Ardern is scheduled to meet with United Nations Secretary General António Guterres and travel to Washington to meet with U.S. senators.

What will Ardern’s visit try to accomplish — and what are her challenges in New Zealand? Here are five things to know.

1. New Zealand is “open for business”

Ardern is eager to get a trade deal with the United States — and deliver the message that “New Zealand is open for business.” Ardern closed New Zealand’s borders in March 2020 in response to the covid-19 pandemic. Her government kept the borders tightly shut for over two years, which meant New Zealand largely kept the virus away.

Although Ardern’s leadership gained her kudos domestically and internationally during the early phase of the pandemic, her support has waned. Thousands of kiwis — and the New Zealand business community — grew frustrated with the border policy. New Zealand citizens living overseas, for instance, had to go through a competitive lottery to win places in the government-run quarantine hotels.

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Earlier this year, Ardern slowly reopened the borders: first to New Zealand citizens, then in early May to Americans and many other tourists, foreign students and business people. International tourism accounted for 5.5 percent of GDP before the pandemic, and Ardern wants Americans to visit, study and do business in New Zealand.

Ardern will also try to nudge trade discussions forward this week. New Zealand has sought bilateral and multilateral trade agreements with the United States for over a decade. New Zealand was a staunch proponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which President Barack Obama signed in 2016. President Donald Trump promptly pulled the United States out of this trade agreement upon taking office. The Biden administration seems unlikely to join New Zealand and 10 other countries that are party to this regional trade agreement. Instead, Biden launched an alternative economic agreement, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, earlier this week.

2. Can New Zealand stay on good terms with both the U.S. and China?

New Zealand enjoys strong diplomatic ties with the United States and is a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance with the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. But it also has a strong relationship with China. In fact, New Zealand was the first developed country to sign a free-trade agreement with China, and China has become its largest export market.

New Zealand has sought to maintain good relations with both China and the United States despite the increasing geopolitical tensions between the two superpowers. Government officials and senior politicians, for instance, didn’t follow Australia’s more aggressive posturing toward China. While New Zealand’s foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta has been publicly critical of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, she has been clear about New Zealand’s intention to be “respectful, predictable and consistent” toward China.

Mahuta also ruled out any expansion of the Five Eyes alliance beyond intelligence sharing. Although this was not a new position, Mahuta received wide criticism from China hawks in Australia and the United Kingdom. Ardern will also walk this tightrope between the United States and China.

3. Ardern’s popularity at home is in decline

Although Ardern received global accolades for her effective response to the pandemic, her party and personal popularity have tumbled in recent months. In March, Ardern’s center-left Labour Party slipped to second place in the polls (37 percent) behind the opposition National Party (39 percent). This was Ardern’s worst poll since 2017.

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Most leaders lose popularity over time — and Ardern is facing strong critiques from New Zealanders frustrated with vaccine mandates, as well as from her left-wing base. Critics say her government has not tackled the country’s housing crisis, or adequately addressed inequality and child poverty. Ardern ruled out a capital-gains tax under her leadership, leaving many on the left deeply disappointed. New Zealand is one of the only OECD countries not to tax capital gains, which some economists say would help cool the property market and produce a more equitable tax system.

4. New Zealand is not so clean and green

New Zealand brands itself as a clean, green country with strong “sustainability credentials.” Ardern has called climate change the “nuclear” issue of our times. However, New Zealand has been more “laggard” than leader on climate change, recording the second-largest increase in carbon emissions of any OECD country since 1990. That translates into a climate record far worse than the U.S. rate of emissions growth.

Ardern’s government recently announced a climate emissions reduction plan but exempted the agriculture sector from paying for its carbon emissions until 2025. Farming is critical to the New Zealand economy but is also one of the largest emitters. Climate experts and scientists have expressed concern about the government’s decision. Mike Joy, a freshwater ecologist at the University of Victoria, Wellington, stated: “It seems like the government is run by agriculture … they forget the five million other stakeholders in having a future, having rivers you can swim in, and a climate that’s liveable.”

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5. Ardern wants to regulate violent and extremist content online

Ardern will probably seek opportunities to discuss stronger regulation of violent, extremist content online. In 2019, her government initiated the Christchurch Call after a white nationalist gunned down 51 Muslims in Christchurch and shared his attack on Facebook Live. In the aftermath of the attack, Ardern’s government organized a global summit with France, and more than a dozen countries, along with tech companies, signed up to stop the spread of terrorist, violent and extremist online content.

Since then, more than 50 countries and most major tech companies have signed the resulting agreement, which sets out voluntary standards. But extremist, violent content continues to be shared online. Millions reportedly viewed a video taken by a gunman who shot 10 people on May 14 in Buffalo He was allegedly inspired by the Christchurch killer and copied sections of his manifesto. Ardern is committed to tackling online extremism and violence — and this one area where New Zealand could provide international and moral leadership.

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Nina Hall (@ninawth) is assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins School of International Studies, and author of “Transnational Advocacy in the Digital Era, Think Global, Act Local” (Oxford University Press, 2022). She also writes on New Zealand foreign policy, and was the editor of “Beyond These Shores, Aotearoa and the World” (Bridget Williams Book, 2020).

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