COMMENT:

Will Jacinda Ardern measure up to the star billing she has been accorded by the World Economic Forum (WEF) at its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland next week?

The WEF highlighted Ardern's participation among four other "leaders and luminaries" — including naturalist Sir David Attenborough, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prince William — in the key press statement announcing the lineup for Davos 2019.

This is quite striking for a political leader barely into her second year as New Zealand's Prime Minister and yet to chalk up significant and sustained domestic results.

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But that's not what Davos is about.

This is the forum where global power brokers and thought leaders will join political, business, government, civil society, academic, arts and culture, and media leaders to tackle how to build a better version of globalisation.

Ardern's star status will inevitably burnish the PM's credentials as a "next generation leader" with her finger on the international pulse and an instinct for emerging issues.

But how the Prime Minister translates her growing reputation in key offshore circles into concerted political results at home will ultimately be how she is judged.

Will she be viewed as a political curiosity in the vein of former Labour Prime Minister David Lange, whose communication skills obscured his failure to command his Cabinet?

Or will she learn the skills of horizontal management? This is important when her Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, is to some extent running an independent agenda.

Refreshingly, Ardern is travelling sans family this time round. This means accompanying news media will be free to concentrate on the substance and outcomes from her meetings rather than banal stories about 'Baby Neve on tour'.

A Global Risks Report, released by the WEF before Davos, warns that the world is "sleepwalking into catastrophe" in its failure to produce and implement adequate policies to address environmental issues.

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It says such concerns eclipse shorter term risks like trade wars, social instability and economic crises. It also warns that geopolitical instability and a retreat into nationalism will make it harder to address longer term environmental risks.

The WEF has invited Ardern to join three panels — more than many other "minor" leaders — which will enable her to play to her undoubted communication strengths and position New Zealand (under the Coalition Government) as being progressive on some big issues of our times.

The overall theme for this year's forum is Globalisation 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The WEF says this is a fraught time for global co-operation, as legitimate frustration over the failure of globalisation to consistently raise living standards spills over into populism and nationalism. The forum also notes a whole new wave of change crashing on us in the form of the high-tech digital revolution.

"With climate change posing an existential threat to our common future, we need to figure out better ways to make the global economy work, and fast," the forum notes.

Ardern's first panel is on is "Safeguarding Our Planet", where panellists will be asked to address how leaders can take action to safeguard people and the planet.

Other panellists include Afira Sakano, who is chair of Japan's Zero Waste Academy; Attenborough; former US Vice-President Al Gore, who has carved out a reputation as an environmentalist; and Anand Mahindra, an Indian industrialist.

Ardern's next panel is "More than GDP", which will enable her to promote New Zealand's first "wellbeing Budget", which Finance Minister Grant Robertson will unveil this year.

The preamble to the panel says it is widely recognised that GDP alone is an inadequate measure of a nation's progress. "Human capital, well-being, innovation, resilience and agility alongside GDP are critical measures of economic and social progress."

Again, the panellists will be asked to address what government, business and civil society leaders can do to better capture the less-tangible factors of inclusive growth.

Other notables on this panel include OECD chief Angel Gurria.

He will join Prince William for Ardern's final panel, which is on mental health.

Ardern says she intends to speak out against "false protectionism and isolation" at Davos, and also in visits to London and Brussels, where she will be promoting trade initiatives in the wake of the Brexit debacle.

"I hope other leaders will come to see more compassionate domestic policy settings as a compelling alternative to the false promise of protectionism and isolation," she says.

The trouble is that key leaders such as US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping — who are at the centre of the global trade war — will not be in Davos this year.

Trump cancelled plans to attend the forum, citing the ongoing partial government shutdown that has arisen over a funding dispute for a wall along the United States' southern border.

But he has deputed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to lead a five-strong delegation which also includes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross; US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer; and Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Co-ordination, Chris Liddell.

The inclusion of Liddell — a New Zealander with dual citizenship — within the core US team is clearly a signal of his growing importance in the Trump Administration.

From the China side, Vice-President Wang Qishan will attend and is among a small group of leaders who will make solo addresses.

These are the key players Ardern must get onto her dance card.