Prime minister Jacinda Ardern, 39, is an unusual figure by American standards. Elected with little leadership experience two years ago, she is now "the most obvious candidate for a Nobel Prize," says Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. After a gunman massacred 51 people in two Christchurch mosques in March, Ardern "gave us a model for how to respond to tragedy," Campbell says. On the eve of her trip to New York for the first UN General Assembly meeting since the tragedy catapulted her to global renown, New Zealand's Ardern chatted in her office with The Washington Post's Lally Weymouth about gun control, Chinese interference and whether she'd have a second child while in office. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: Last March, after the mosque shooting in Christchurch, you became an international sensation, because people thought you handled it so well. You were the mourner in chief. You immediately got Parliament to ban the sale of semiautomatic weapons.
A: I felt a sense of responsibility to try and encapsulate what New Zealanders were feeling. I could see that New Zealanders just wanted a message of huge empathy to be shared. All I did was reflect that. Same with the gun legislation. The fact that Parliament almost unanimously supported that legislation I think shows how everyone felt.
Q: You also created a gun buyback program.
A: Yes, and it's now brought in more than 17,000 semiautomatic and assault rifles. Over 70,000 banned parts have been returned as well. Initially, we said we were going to deal with the guns that we thought just weren't necessary. That was done within 12 days. People now bring back their guns and acknowledge that it's all about making New Zealand safer.
Q: Now you are introducing more gun legislation.
A: That will bring in a gun registry for New Zealand.
Q: After the shooting, you organised the "Christchurch Call," working with the tech companies to curb online extremism. Is this your response to the fact that the Christchurch killer live-streamed the massacre on Facebook?
A: I don't think the globe had experienced the broadcast of an attack like that before. We felt a sense of obligation to do something about it. We could have just changed our domestic laws, but it wouldn't have solved the problem. That's when I thought to look at what other countries had been doing and to see if there was an appetite to join us and push for greater reform.
Q: How is it going?
A: It is an ongoing piece of work. You couldn't live-stream several years ago. I would like to see us establish an infrastructure that can deal with the changing environment. We're working on that with the tech companies and with other governments.
Q: Have the tech companies been cooperative?
A: Yes. Many of them I called and personally asked their leadership to work with us on the Christchurch Call.
Q: How do you see President [Donald] Trump? Do you want to visit the White House? How do you see the US-New Zealand relationship?
A: The US relationship with New Zealand is an incredibly important one. So therefore my relationship with the president of United States will be important to me as well. New Zealand sees the United States as playing an important role not just in our region but in our global institutions. If the United States isn't as present in those global institutions, then we're all the poorer for it.
Q: Are you talking about the World Trade Organization?
A: The WTO or the UN, or APEC [the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum].
Q: Are you looking for a US-New Zealand bilateral trade agreement?
A: We've talked about that. It would be a significant benefit to New Zealand.
Q: What about an upgraded bilateral trade agreement with China, which your country is seeking?
A: We've had a free-trade agreement with China for a number of years. We are in the middle of an FTA upgrade with China, our largest trading partner.
Q: What do you think of the U.S.-China trade war? Does it worry you?
A: It has a global impact, undeniably. It has an impact on the sense of certainty in the global trading environment, particularly given the fact that so many companies and businesses are global.
Q: The National Party, which was previously in power, had a close relationship with China. Your government appears to have stepped back a bit.
A: We have jealously guarded our independent foreign policy. I'm very committed to that.
Q: Students at the University of Auckland recently demonstrated in favor of the protesters in Hong Kong, and they were attacked and threatened by mainland Chinese students studying in New Zealand. Your government made a statement supporting academic freedom.
A: Yes. In the wake of those events, I just simply reinforced our expectation that academic freedom would be protected.
Q: People say that New Zealand society has been heavily penetrated by China.
A: We are aware of issues of foreign interference. We would be naive if we didn't make sure that our institutions are robust, because there are many sources from which we may be experiencing interference.
Q: Australia passed a bill banning foreign interference last year. Would you think of doing something like that?
A: We've got good infrastructure, but we just need to make sure it's keeping pace.
Q: You mean cybersecurity?
A: Cyber, but also our legislation. We're reviewing our electoral laws at the moment to check that they're doing the job we need.
Q: Do you worry about China coming to dominate the Pacific Island states?
A: What dominates my concern with the Pacific Islands is climate change. That has been identified by the Pacific Islands themselves as their biggest regional security threat. Of course there is a debate about the presence of others in the region.
Q: Is New Zealand helping the Pacific Island states? You introduced the "Pacific Reset."
A: Yes, $300 million was put aside specifically for climate focus, and we've said that the majority of that is going to go into the Pacific Islands for protecting water sources and putting in renewable-energy sources.
Q: Before the 2017 election, you weren't the head of the Labour Party. Andrew Little, the leader, resigned shortly before the election and said you should take over.
A: Actually, I just told him no. I said he should stay, but he quit. I was already the deputy, and so I accepted the nomination to be party leader.
Q: How soon before the election was that?
A: Seven weeks.
Q: That's daunting.
A: Yes, it was. I just had to take hold of the election campaign and try and reset it.
Q: During the election campaign people mobbed you - they loved you. You attracted huge crowds. There was what your press called "Jacindamania."
A: People used that kind of language. I pushed back on that during the election campaign.
Q: What did you propose to do?
A: I narrowed in on some issues that I felt were ready to be addressed. One was our environment - taking action on climate change. I talked a lot about the housing crisis and homelessness.
Q: What are you most concerned about right now?
A: There are many things that keep me awake at night. I've only got three years - it is a short term - and there is so much I want to do. I just want the basics to be right for everybody. I want everyone to have a decent house to live in, I want people to be able to swim in their local river again, I want people when they go to their job to get joy from it and some decent wages and to be able to raise their family and see them without having to work multiple jobs. Those are the things that I sweat.
Q: How do you feel about the upcoming election? Do you think you're going to win?
A: It's a year away, and that's still a really long time for us. I think about the election, but I don't let it dominate, because I've got quite a lot to do before then. We are polling better now than we did on election night.
Q: But you want to have another term, right?
A: Yes, I do. I very much would like to earn another term.
Q: When you entered Parliament, did you start saying to yourself, I want to become prime minister?
A: No. I did not see myself in that role. I won a seat in Parliament in February, was made the deputy leader in March and then became the party leader in August 2017. I wasn't pregnant at the time of the election. But, by the time we formed a government [in October], I knew I was pregnant.
Q: Everyone admires how you have pulled off motherhood and being a prime minister at the same time. Is it hard?
Q: How are you doing it?
A: With help. I talk very openly about that, because I don't want to create a sense that I'm a superwoman when I'm not. I have a wonderful partner who is my daughter Neve's primary caregiver. Then I also have my mother and mother-in-law, and they help us a lot. There are lots of things I miss out on. But lots of parents experience that.
Q: Are you going to have another child while you're prime minister?
A: I can't even think about that while I have a 15-month-old baby.