Matthew Hooton gives a sneak peek at what is likely to be discussed when Jacinda Ardern meets US President Donald Trump in the US next week - and why everyone should be wishing her luck.
"Because he is so transactional, Trump works with anyone if he perceives advantage in doing so. If he doesn't care that Kim Jong Un called him a 'mentally deranged dotard', he is unlikely to care that Ardern marched against his inauguration and ticked him off publicly for his racist attacks on four congresswomen."
Most likely, there will be no substantial outcome from next week's meeting between Donald Trump and Jacinda Ardern — not even a presidential tweet.
US Presidents hold half a dozen bilateral meetings when world leaders gather at the UN.
While it is flattering to be among them, Ardern is unlikely to rank top of Trump's priorities on the day.
The US Embassy in Wellington positions the meeting as almost routine given the breadth and depth of the relationship, and the Beehive and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) are also managing expectations.
Still, Trump's impulsive style means there is a chance he will choose not to follow that script. The opportunity for Ardern's team is thinking how to encourage a bold and unexpected presidential initiative that serves New Zealand's interests.
For eight years, John Key and Barack Obama shared the same political and strategic outlook, holiday destination and sporting interests. The nuclear-ship issue was finally resolved with a US destroyer visiting Auckland in 2016.
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Trump and Ardern's unexpected elections in 2016 and 2017 appeared to set the two countries on different ideological and personality paths.
With MFAT assessing Trump as purely transactional, not even valuing permanent relationships with the US' Nato allies, and fears about the new Prime Minister's attitude towards him, diplomats thought it best just to let the relationship flourish at every level except heads of government.
In fact, Ardern and Trump have met and spoken several times, including almost immediately after the March 15 attack. Ardern has been as professional as any of her recent predecessors in working with the US leader.
Precisely because he is so transactional, Trump works with anyone if he perceives advantage in doing so. If he doesn't care that Kim Jong Un called him a "mentally deranged dotard", he is unlikely to care that Ardern marched against his inauguration and ticked him off publicly for his racist attacks on four congresswomen.
The US can justify a formal meeting with Ardern given that New Zealand is a Five Eyes partner, and Trump's tilt away from Europe and the Atlantic towards the Asia-Pacific.
Perhaps more decisive, Trump values association with celebrity, which Ardern's international profile provides.
Paradoxically, in next week's meeting, the 39-year-old former President of the International Union of Socialist Youth is the old-fashioned conservative and the 73-year-old Republican businessman the hot-headed radical.
Consistent with New Zealand's long-standing position, Ardern's overarching message will be to encourage Trump to respect and celebrate the multilateral rules-based system built under American leadership which — supported with nuclear weapons, on which she is less keen — has delivered the longest period of peace among great powers in history.
Top of that agenda must be encouraging the US to stop vetoing the appointment of new appeals judges at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which threatens to destroy its all-important dispute-settlement process by year's end.
On Trump's trade war with China, the Prime Minister's position will be that it at least be conducted within WTO rules, which the US asserts it is. The US tariffs on our steel and aluminium products also arise in this context.
Continuing the rules-based theme, Ardern will ask Trump to reconsider his unilateral 2017 withdrawals from the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and invite his Government to join the US private sector in supporting her Christchurch Call.
For all his bluster, Trump has not shown the same predilection for careless military adventures as his recent predecessors. Still, Ardern will want to emphasise New Zealand's view that any response to last week's attack on Saudi oil facilities should be multilateral.
She will also want to discuss North Korea and the South China Sea in a rules-based context.
None of this grandiose conversation will achieve much, of course. No US President is swayed by a New Zealand Prime Minister alone. Nevertheless, Ardern failing to raise these issues would be interpreted as tacit endorsement for Trump's continued undermining of the rules-based system on which New Zealand relies for both its security and prosperity.
If Ardern simply makes these points, reiterates Winston Peters' call for the US to increase its engagement in the western Pacific, confirms that conventional US naval vessels are welcome in New Zealand and conducts a bit of Five Eyes business of which we will never know, she will have done a perfectly adequate B+ job.
But Trump's impulsive personality and Ardern's international celebrity create an outside chance she could achieve much more.
For example, to pretend it is WTO-compliant, the US' formal position is that imports of New Zealand steel and aluminium threaten its national security.
It would surely offend against most male egos, let alone a blustering 73-year-old leader of a great power, to tell a demure 39-year-old female premier of some South Pacific islands that he is scared of her steel and aluminium industry.
If Ardern and her officials play the room right, that is what Trump will have to claim or else admit that which the US has hitherto denied — that its tariffs on New Zealand breach WTO rules.
A tweet overruling his bureaucrats on tariffs against tiny, powerless New Zealand would surely be more consistent with Trump's self-image and brand.
Similarly, announcing he wants his bureaucrats to negotiate a bilateral free-trade agreement with New Zealand — as he indicated when he withdrew from the TPP — would surely be more Trumpian than blathering about ongoing economic engagement.
New Zealand, of course, has been there before, when Jenny Shipley received the same promise from Bill Clinton in 1999, but the failure by someone with that surname to keep his word might only further incentivise Trump to publicly back the initiative that Peters now champions.
We are now deep into speculation. The meeting will probably deliver neither side more than a photo op. But the good news for Ardern and New Zealand is that, with Trump, you just never know. Everyone should wish the Prime Minister well for next week.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland based public relations consultant and lobbyist.