The international media rarely fails to provide fascinating insight into New Zealand politics.

Among the more eye-opening coverage of recent days: America's national daily, USA Today, listing Jacinda Ardern among the proliferation of "Trump-like leaders", and Australia's national daily, The Australian, announcing in a headline, "Kiwis now led by a Commie".

After all that it was a relief in recent days to see New Zealand resume its gravitational place in world news.

Dominating our appearances in recent days: Prime Minister Ardern's cat, Paddles, has a tribute Twitter account, and thumbs.


But while New Zealand's primary role in world media is undeniably as provider of novelty curiosities, international relations looms as an uncommonly important area for the new coalition government - beyond the burgeoning diplomatic engagement between @FirstCatofNZ and @Number10cat.

In the Asia-Pacific region especially, a bunch of simmering tensions could turn swiftly into a crisis that sucks in New Zealand. Were that to happen, the junior coalition partner, New Zealand First, would find itself centre-stage.

It's a funny old thing, NZ First. For a party thought to be our closest analogue to the Brexit mood or the Trump brigade, it resists many of the tropes.

Of its five most senior MPs granted government jobs in the past few days, none is a white man. And for our version of a nationalist party, its focus is solidly regional and international - most notably in the appointment of Winston Peters as foreign minister and Ron Mark as defence minister.

In many ways the trade minister, a role filled by Labour's David Parker, has become as important as those roles in terms of representing New Zealand abroad. It will be important again, not least in the highly ambitious goal of renegotiating the TPP-11 (absent Donald Trump's America).

But more broadly, foreign affairs could prove a highly demanding field for Peters, Mark, and their Prime Minister.

Its potential to serve up the Rumsfeldian known unknowns and unknown unknowns is also an area in which the newly assembled three-part government risks rupture.

Top of the list is Australia. "I can't deny it," Peters acknowledged this week, "our relationship is not what it should be."


On everything from the treatment of refugees and deportation of New Zealand citizens to the non-reciprocation of rights for New Zealanders in Australia, there are many raw nerves.

Cuddles for First Cat Paddles from Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Supplied via Twitter
Cuddles for First Cat Paddles from Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Supplied via Twitter

Ardern came off better in the terse exchange with foreign minister Julie Bishop early in the New Zealand campaign, but she and Peters will be keen to get things off to a fresh start soon. If it doesn't work out, of course, Ardern could always threaten to decree all Australian politicians citizens of New Zealand.

It is anyone's guess what might happen in the real-life B-movie of American politics.

Ardern has apparently begun bilateral relations with the White House promisingly, even if the sombre photograph of her on the phone with Donald Trump makes an amusing contrast to the grinning Skype exchange with Canadian catalogue model Justin Trudeau.

But, who knows, what if the US president decided he fancied a trip to our southern paradise? How would the Greens react? "We certainly would not welcome him," said former co-leader Metiria Turei before the election, "and his misogyny and his racism."

More pressing, probably, as far as Trump is concerned, is how he might respond, including via short-form social media platforms, to any conflagration in Asia.


Peters has already addressed the small matter of a nuclear-enabled Pyongyang, saying, "We do not think that North Korea is an utterly hopeless case"; the Korean peninsula was one of "a number of things internationally which I think New Zealand has a capability of having a strong voice on".

As a known unknown - or should that be an unknown known, I don't know - no one ranks higher than Kim Jong-un. Except perhaps Donald J Trump.

In all that, the other crucial figure is Xi Jinping. The Chinese president has been busy in recent days consolidating his power, revealing a new party absent any obvious successor.

Even a small country famed for a prime ministerial cat with thumbs cannot avoid any China-US quarrel - the ability to deftly embrace economic alliance with Beijing and political alliance with Washington could come in for strain.

Will an emboldened Chinese leadership seek to assert itself further in the South China Sea? At its worst a powder keg for regional dispute, the sea provided one of the most delicate foreign policy challenges for the last National government, which opposed, with a whisper, Chinese designs in the sea, prompting the state news agency to greet John Key with a warning: "For his China trip to succeed, New Zealand PM should avoid talk of territorial disputes".

As far as current military deployments go, New Zealand troops are committed to remain in Iraq until at least the end of next year. While they are strictly involved in a training capacity, how would the new government respond to a call for expansion, or to any involvement, say, in the Iraqi army's brutal assaults on the Kurds in the north? The Greens have consistently opposed troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Then there's Israel. The concluding commitment in the NZ First coalition agreement is to record a Cabinet minute denouncing the process that saw New Zealand sponsor a UN motion condemning Israel's unlawful settlement building. A detail, maybe, but how will apparent cosying up to Israel sit with the Greens?

Marama Davidson (who as second placed on the Green list has more case than anyone to be peeved at missing out on a government role) was detained in Israel last year after defying official advice to take part in a Gaza peace flotilla, designed to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territory. How is she, and the many others who feel similarly appalled by Israel's continued treatment of Palestinians, likely to regard this apparent direction of travel?

Today, the government and its three parties appear concerted, harmonious even.

Ardern has proven beyond doubt her leadership cojones.

But the two deals are discrete - James Shaw had not even had contact with Peters until midweek, when he presented him with the appropriate koha, a bottle of whiskey.

Critically, Labour and New Zealand First need the Greens - unless National back them - to pass a bill. At some point it will get tense. Ardern's premiership begins with a burst of diplomacy, with a November trip to Vietnam and the Apec summit, presumably accompanied by the Peters-Parker supermen, where TPP and Trump and Xi will all be in the foreground.


Down the track, who'd bet against serious, deal-testing tension beginning beyond our borders?