Nanaia Mahuta's appointment as Foreign Minister was the one big surprise of Jacinda Ardern's post-election reshuffle. It may be inspired.
New Zealand's foreign policy is now in a bit of a mess. The central problem is the conflict between our relationships with China and the United States. Crudely, New Zealand has tried to rely on the former for money and the latter for security.
Unfortunately, the days of Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin's "constructive strategic partnership" are well behind us. The US and China are no longer so tolerant of those playing both sides.
The origins of the problem also lie in New Zealand convincing ourselves during the 1980s nuclear-ships dispute that there is such a thing as an independent foreign policy.
Just as with their personal lives, the Baby Boomer generation of ministers and officials decided less value should be placed on long-term relationships and the compromises that come with them. Instead, they backed their own abilities to use analytic tools like economics, ethics or "the science" to establish the correct position on any topic and go out and sell it.
At its most naive, this led to assertions of New Zealand exceptionalism, where other countries would be so inspired by plucky New Zealand's leadership that they would soon fall into line.
More soberly, it led to New Zealand's firm commitment to the multilateral rules-based system, including the dispute settlement processes at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Protected by that architecture, New Zealand ministers and diplomats figured they'd be able to whiz round the world picking and choosing friends and allies, one issue at a time. If money was involved, it might be China. If it was security, it would be the US or Australia.
In all this, idealistic New Zealand ministers forgot that all those global rules worked only as long as the great powers wanted them to.
More embarrassingly, puffed up by their own self-importance as big fish from a minuscule pond, most never understood that the very idea of New Zealand leadership is comical. That's true not just with great powers or smaller ones like Australia, but even in our own region. Pacific states are no more interested in being lectured to and led by New Zealand than we are by anyone else.
Competition is fierce for the ultimate in Kiwi hubris. David Lange apparently believed he could rid the world of nuclear weapons. Successive trade ministers believed their interventions could rescue the WTO's Doha Development Round.
Murray McCully showed up in Israel and Palestine with his own ideas about how to settle their dispute, to chortles in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Ardern seems to think other countries will follow her lead and ban oil and gas exploration. Everyone talks about New Zealand "punching above its weight".
With her officials warning that "many of the assumptions that have underpinned our foreign policy for 75 years are coming under real and sustained pressure", Mahuta may be exactly the right person to restore realism, both as a formal foreign-policy doctrine and in terms of how New Zealand understands its own power and influence and speaks and acts accordingly.
Every foreign minister approaches the job based to some extent on their whakapapa. Mahuta comes from a noble line within kīngitanga and is the daughter of the great Sir Robert Mahuta. She knows about hierarchy.
More importantly, her lifetime of experience in the unregulated world of Waikato-Tainui and Māori politics makes her more comfortable than any of her predecessors with operating in anarchic political systems, which perfectly describes the current international environment.
Also unlike most of her predecessors, Mahuta has first-hand experience of being on the wrong side of radically unequal power relationships, which is exactly what New Zealand faces internationally.
Yet, as a 20-something, she witnessed first-hand how the less powerful party can achieve most of its objectives when her father led Waikato-Tainui to become the first iwi to negotiate its historic Treaty settlement with the Crown, despite the furore about the much-hated fiscal envelope.
For both sides, it was an enormous political risk, threatening Prime Minister Jim Bolger's political base while falling well short of fully compensating Waikato-Tainui for 19th century land confiscations. It happened only because of the strength of the long-standing relationship between Sir Robert and Bolger.
Mahuta's speech to the diplomatic corps in Waitangi last month emphasised all the usual New Zealand priorities, led by the importance of the international rules-based order. So she should have. That is always the best option for New Zealand.
But it is not the option on the table right now, even with Donald Trump safely expelled from the White House.
Of more importance was Mahuta's emphasis on "relationships, relationships, relationships". These, she said, underpinned all New Zealand's foreign-policy efforts and are "the building blocks for our international connections".
Mahuta claimed the Treaty of Waitangi experience has taught New Zealand lessons "about managing and creating enduring relationships". We would, she said, "nurture relationships with like-minded partners who share our values" and be "predictable and reliable" ourselves. She referenced the world being "interdependent".
This is hardly radical, but it goes beyond the usual assertions of New Zealand independence and the importance of following rules. It implies more a realist alliance system than the institutionalist rules-based model we would ordinarily prefer.
Having allowed ourselves to become so economically dependent on China while depending for our security on our only ally, Australia, New Zealand's room to move is obviously profoundly constrained.
Yet if Mahuta seeks a subtle shift from relying on formal rules more towards a relationships-first approach, then she may be half way to resolving the central problem.
Contemporary New Zealand's longest-standing friends and most like-minded, values-based partners are Australia, the United Kingdom, the US and Canada. They are also our Five Eyes partners, are huge markets and have overwhelming military power.
We should not be slavish to their perspectives but nor does it make sense to say we can be independent from them.
Being a relatively loyal member of that alliance is the best way to promote New Zealand's economic and security interests in the dangerous times ahead.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant.