The first Māori woman to be foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta is an experienced lawmaker known for her deep roots in Māori tribal diplomacy. She was chosen, she said, because she looks and sounds different from her predecessors: Mahuta was the first New Zealand minister to bear a moko kauae, or traditional chin tattoo. Her appointment as part of a notably diverse cabinet after October elections is a statement of intent from Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, who has promised to prioritize social justice and equality.
Various New Zealand leaders, including Mahuta, have trumpeted their esteem for a “multilateral, rules-based” foreign policy as the only way that the nation of 5 million can exert influence. But since the center-left Labour government led by Ardern took office in 2017, New Zealand has served for some as a symbol of something beyond its size: a foil for right-wing populism and the triumph of kindness and competence.
Now, Mahuta has her work cut out. Her country finds itself in a tougher neighborhood than before, driven by a rupture in relations between China and Australia, New Zealand’s closest ally, as Beijing blockades Australian imports and Australia pushes back at what it considers malign Chinese actions. China is New Zealand’s top trading partner, but the small Pacific nation’s Western allies increasingly expect that it will vocally defend democracy and call out Beijing’s authoritarianism — moves that would risk economic retribution.
Can Mahuta thread the needle? “I think the time now calls for a different way of doing things,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. Mahuta would bring Indigenous solutions and the voices of women and youths to complex matters such as climate change and inequality, she added, citing resource extraction as an area that called for “Indigenous thinking about the environment” and living more sustainably.
Mahuta has proffered early examples of her strategy, telling reporters last month that New Zealand could use its role as host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit this year to mediate talks between Australia and China. Beijing’s state media poured scorn on the suggestion, emphasizing the scale of the challenge.
“Both parties will have to be willing to come together and concede in some areas where they are currently not seeing eye to eye,” Mahuta told Reuters recently.
New Zealand’s trade with China “doesn’t mean we have to recoil from the values and principles that we uphold,” she told The Post. Still, New Zealand was absent from a joint statement this month from its major allies condemning Beijing’s latest crackdown in Hong Kong, with Mahuta instead decrying China’s actions in a tweet.
Mahuta, 50, grew up steeped in diplomacy. Her father was the lead negotiator for their Māori iwi, or tribe, Waikato Tainui, in its historic settlement of claims over land confiscated by British colonizers. Mahuta drove her father to meetings, made the tea and served as his researcher.
In 1996, she became, at 26, the youngest lawmaker in New Zealand’s Parliament after studying social anthropology at the University of Auckland and a childhood spent in Huntly, a rural town on New Zealand’s North Island.
There, her upbringing centered on the family’s local marae — a Māori meeting house — where members worked together to “build each other’s collective success and well-being,” she said. Māori in New Zealand still face economic and social disparities such as higher incarceration rates and worse health outcomes than New Zealanders of European descent. Mahuta saw her people addressing their own problems.
Her youthful observations of leadership and community have helped her weather storms during a quarter-century in Parliament, and raising the children she had borne while in office — now ages 8 and 11 — taught her to let go of the unimportant, Mahuta said.
Her family lives in Ngaruawahia, a town close to where she grew up, and Mahuta still regularly greets visitors to her ancestral meeting house.
“The marae is a great leveler. Everyone’s the same,” she said. “It wouldn’t matter if you were the prime minister.”
She has seen some success in taking the approach to the world stage: Mahuta previously served as associate minister for trade and is deeply connected throughout the Pacific Island nations.
Mahuta is “the type of person who is able to [as] easily connect to the dignitaries at the front of the powhiri as the people who dry the dishes,” said Shane Te Pou, a political commentator, using the Māori word for a formal welcoming ceremony.
Te Pou was on the panel that chose Mahuta for her first political candidacy. She was not the favorite, he said, but she “blew us away” with her presentation.
Closer U.S. ties post-Trump
Such a powhiri last month in Wellington to welcome APEC economic representatives was Mahuta’s first official engagement as foreign minister. She told the crowd that Māori had held a merely symbolic role when New Zealand last hosted the summit in 1999 but that the success and potential of Indigenous business would take center stage in 2021.
“She has such gravitas and respect, and that’s inseparable from her heritage,” said Kevin Covert, a U.S. envoy to Wellington who attended the ceremony. The United States anticipated working with her on China matters in particular, he added.
The end of President Trump’s term is likely to bolster ties between the Pacific nation and the United States, and how the Biden administration manages its relationship with Beijing could adjust American expectations of New Zealand.
While Mahuta and Ardern both declared a “strong relationship” with the United States under Trump, their politics suggest a more natural alliance with Biden. Ardern in November foreshadowed “even closer relations,” and Mahuta has spoken admiringly of Harris.
Mahuta is “an extremely effective diplomat because she’s connecting with people in a spiritual, cultural and personal manner,” Covert said.
But her ascension nevertheless prompted racist commentary in a country still reckoning with its colonial past; some social media commenters in New Zealand said Mahuta’s facial tattoo made her unfit for the role. She was undeterred.
“I’m not there because I’m the same as what we’ve always had,” Mahuta said. “I’m there because I’m different and I’m able to bring a different perspective.”