Claire Trevett: Jacinda Ardern and Donald Trump, the end of the silent treatment


On Tuesday night, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern emerged from the cone of holiday silence and posted on Facebook.

Her first post was news of a phone call with Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and a photo of Morrison on the blower in his car.

They had discussed the Covid vaccine, apparently.

The Facebook post was to let us all know that calls between the two leaders were usually off-the-cuff rather than scheduled.

This time the reception was murky because Morrison was driving through the outback – he had sent the photo by way of “proof he was indeed in the outback”.

The anecdote served to highlight the informality that only comes with a close and regularly maintained relationship with another leader.

For the past three years, it has been Ardern who has been in the outback when it comes to a relationship with another country’s leader.

The reception there was very patchy indeed. Her relationship with outgoing US President Donald Trump can be fairly described as no relationship at all.

There were only two phone calls. The first was after Ardern was elected Prime Minister. The second was after the Christchurch mosque attacks. Ardern said he had asked how he could help: “Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities,” she replied.

The US was not one of the 48 countries to sign up to the Christchurch Call initiative to stymie extremist content online.

That Ardern was often described as the “anti-Trump” in international media would not have helped.

Visits to New York for the UN were exercises in restraint and diplomatic silence. Asked for comment about various utterances of Trump – from climate change to trade -Ardern would inevitably offer an answer that wasn’t an answer at all.

The only things the two had in common were the colour of their political parties (red), and a preference for using their own social media to communicate.

However, it is no coincidence that Ardern all but stopped using Twitter (Trump’s main platform) and focused on Facebook and Instagram as soon as she became PM.

There was no invite to the White House for Ardern.

They had just one meeting: at the UN in 2019. Ardern reported Trump had shown interest in New Zealand, raising the gun reforms and showing “enthusiasm” about trade, while cautioning that did not necessarily mean action on either.

That meeting also produced the only public photo of them together. In the photo, Trump is doing the thumbs-up.

There was one photo taken that never appeared: in 2018 Trump hosted a reception for the leaders at the UN, and he and wife Melanya Trump had photos taken with them as they entered.

Other leaders’ photos with the couple were quickly splashed on social media.

Ardern’s disappeared into thin air: her office said it was never sent to her and the NZ Herald’s attempts to ascertain its fate from the US Embassy were fruitless.

It remains a mystery what happened. Was it because Clarke Gayford knocked over the President’s flag during the photo op? Was it simply because somebody had blinked at the wrong time?

Morrison’s relationship with Trump was a much closer one: Australia was an “ally” and acted accordingly.

Australia has always had a closer relationship with the US than New Zealand, but the Trump era turned the gap in the respective relationships into a chasm.

That matters partly because when it comes to the US, it helps New Zealand to have the ballast of Australia next to it.

Even when the personal relationships between the leaders are at their best – as with US President Barack Obama and former PM Sir John Key – New Zealand struggles simply because it is so small and – to be honest – irrelevant to the US.

The election of Biden should see the New Zealand and Australian relationships with the US regain more symmetry.

For Ardern, the change in administration will be cause for a deep sigh of relief.

There was something of a head-in-the-sand approach to the Trump reign by Ardern and her Government: a sense of simply pretending it was not happening and waiting and hoping it would be over soon, like a bad case of wind. Ardern was not alone in this.

The relationship was effectively put on hold as she waited for it all to end.

That was despite the best efforts of her Foreign Minister Winston Peters, and his howlingly optimistic belief a free trade deal would be in the works by 2020.

The election of Biden sees something of a return to pre-2017 in the relationship between the US and New Zealand, and will see a marked improvement in the personal relationships between the US President and New Zealand Prime Minister.

Her first phone call with Trump in 2017 was just five minutes long. Her first phone call with Joe Biden after his election win lasted 20 minutes and Biden praised her “exceptional leadership”.

Whether leaders get on is not the only factor in international relationships. But it certainly helps a hell of a lot.

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