Jacinda goes to Washington

The sticky, hazy heat of the precincts of Washington DC in early summer is a far cry from the breezy, chilly streets around the Beehive in early winter.

It was a warm welcome indeed at the White House for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. With the mercury climbing into the mid-30s and little or no breeze for relief, the choice of a long woollen jacket for the meeting with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office was taking the definition of warmth to the next level.

On what was her first face-to-face meeting with Mr Biden, the two reportedly discussed gun reforms, trade, Russia’s war with Ukraine, climate change, the Pacific Islands and their security, and China’s recent moves into the region.

It was the first visit by a New Zealand prime minister to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW since John Key met Barack Obama there in 2014.

It probably does our street cred no end of good that there was no White House meeting with the oafish Donald Trump. However, Ms Ardern did have 20 minutes with the former Republican president in New York in September 2019, where they talked about tourism, trade, guns and terror, and, apparently extremely briefly, climate change.

In some ways it was a miracle this week’s meeting happened at all. It wasn’t until Friday last week that confirmation came through of the get-togethers with Mr Biden and also with Vice-President Kamala Harris.

Various other curveballs were thrown at the prime minister and her entourage during the United States trip, including several testing positive for Covid-19 and, another inevitability, the breakdown of the Royal New Zealand Air Force Boeing 757 "Old Faithful Betty", fortunately on the last stop once it got to Washington.

But Ms Ardern got there. Not only was she granted a full hour with the president, but the meeting carried on longer, for another 30 minutes.

That is a good sign of the rapport between the two leaders and the genuine interest each held for the other’s views. One can only wonder what kind of frantic rejigging of schedules was going on behind the scenes to accommodate that unscheduled half hour of talks.

Despite the various hassles, the prime minister and her team had a successful and productive time in the US. It was a very good time to be visiting, particularly on the geopolitical front, with the ongoing war in Ukraine and the concerning creep of China’s influence throughout the Pacific islands.

Ms Ardern also went down well with American audiences, whether they were of the hyped-up type on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert or of a more refined, erudite nature, listening to the annual commencement address she gave at Harvard University on receiving her honorary doctorate of law.

Of course it is difficult to know exactly what might come from Ms Ardern’s 90 minutes with Mr Biden. A 3000-word joint communique from their meeting sums things up in three headings — Regional Architecture and Security, Indo-Pacific Prosperity and 21st Century Challenges.

An interesting analysis of the statement by The Spinoff in the form of a word cloud highlights the words which dominated, including Pacific, security, commitment, work, together, and support. Technology, pandemic, rights and threat also feature less prominently, and Wellington, Christchurch and Russia are, interestingly, tiny words in the corner of the graphic.

Like a lot of world leaders, the prime minister seems to shine more brightly overseas than at home, where she is encumbered with all sorts of domestic worries — from inflation and poverty, to health system chaos and overflowing hospitals, to gang violence and ram raids.

It is good for us to see Ms Ardern on the world stage and to remember that, while she is obviously not perfect, we are lucky to have a leader as approachable and easy to do business with as her, and one who leaves such a positive impression of our country and of New Zealanders.

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