US Election: Matthew Hooton – How New Zealand can help Joe Biden

Assuming the results in Wisconsin, Michigan and Nevada are confirmed, Joe Biden’s first task is simply to achieve popular legitimacy for an orderly transfer of power.

That alone would be enough for New Zealand’s anxious foreign policymakers. The alternative is the unthinkable nightmare of the American people and competing foreign actors not agreeing on the basic question of who is the rightful Commander in Chief of the world’s largest military and nuclear power.

Biden’s historic mission will then be to restore unity, stability and decency in his bitterly divided country – along with civility and reliability in its foreign policy, especially towards its friends, including minnows like New Zealand.

For four years, Donald Trump has undermined the basic institutions that maintain world peace and trade flows, including the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and even the anchor of western security, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). He has bizarrely cuddled up to the North Koreans and Russians, picked unnecessary and increasingly dangerous fights with China, and allowed Iran to resume its uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons programmes.

More recently, his mismanagement of Covid-19, inflammatory remarks on race and insinuations he will refuse to leave office have created repeated crises in what was and should be again “the arsenal of democracy” and “shining city upon a hill”.

Biden would just need to restore basic norms of conduct for his presidency to be a success and to secure the White House in 2024 for his Vice-President, Kamala Harris – who, as a former US Senator for California, the world’s fifth largest economy, is an entirely mainstream political actor, however often Trump supporters use her colour and gender to maliciously group her with the likes of junior congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

New Zealand will encourage Biden to immediately allow new judges to join the WTO’s Appellate Body, reversing Trump’s four-year block on appointments as part of his effort to undermine the rules-based multilateral trading system.

Similarly, New Zealand will be pleased to see Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala take up her position as director-general of the WTO as soon as Trump’s veto is removed.

More responsible economic and fiscal management in the US would also be appreciated to reduce the risk of a financial crisis at a time when the world financial system is already under pressure from Covid. That will also depend on the attitude of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Senate.

On climate change – Jacinda Ardern’s “nuclear-free moment” – New Zealand will celebrate the US re-joining the Paris Agreement on Climate Change as soon as possible, and increasing its engagement on the New Zealand-led Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (GHGs).

Whatever is claimed about New Zealand “leadership” on climate change, it is a renewed US commitment that is absolutely essential if China, the European Union, India, Russia, Japan and Brazil are to upgrade their efforts. With the US, those six account for nearly two-thirds of total GHGs and it is only action by the big seven that makes measures by anyone else meaningful.

Within our region, a Biden Administration is expected to take up its rightful place at the head of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) table, even if it needs yet another name change for political reasons. Ardern, seeking a traditional export-led recovery, will want the earliest possible US accession.

The CPTPP may be an economic agreement but Ardern and her advisers also see it through a strategic lens.

Trump’s machismo against China’s Xi Jinping was coarse and unsophisticated. Some New Zealand policymakers worry it has fuelled insecurity in Beijing, prompting its own military build-up and posturing, including in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

Simply resuming more diplomatic language may ease tensions between the US and China.

Still, New Zealand is hardly sanguine about China’s growing engagement in the South Pacific or the scale of its Belt and Road ambitions.

While Winston Peters’ 2018 Georgetown Address in Washington DC caused a fuss by how bluntly it called for the US to take a greater role in our region, it nevertheless remains New Zealand’s basic policy.

New Zealand’s preference is for great powers to stay out of the South Pacific altogether, but if China is expanding its footprint in our front yard then Ardern sees the US as an indispensable check.

Ardern, who has strong links to Nato through its director-general, Jens Stoltenberg, the Labour Party Prime Minister of Norway at the time of that country’s 2011 terrorist attack, will also want Biden to restore American leadership of that bedrock alliance.

After 2016, New Zealand diplomats soon worked out that the Trump White House was barely worth dealing with. Trump himself was seen as entirely transactional and – as a tiny player – New Zealand had nothing to trade. Even if anyone’s word could be relied upon to reflect US policy without being overruled by a presidential tweet, there was constant turnover of senior officials and staff.

Ardern was perfectly polite and professional in her dealings with her fellow head of government, but there was little point in any deeper engagement with Trump or his inner circle. The best strategy was to keep out of their line of sight and to maintain the relationship at other levels, from Five Eyes intelligence gathering, to scientific studies in Antarctica, to joint operations in New Zealand’s enormous 30 million square kilometre search and rescue area, to competing against one another in the America’s Cup.

Ardern has a positive international brand, built around New Zealand’s successful Covid response, her compassionate response to the March 15 terrorist attack and the concepts of kindness and civility.

She is also an Americophile and conventional in her international outlook. Should Biden consider it useful, her people are making clear she would be available to lend her brand to help him restore basic norms of decency to the conduct of security, trade and climate-change policy, and international relations generally.

The democratic world relies on American leadership and the planet is safest when the US is strong and stable. While maintaining a close economic partnership with a hopefully less insecure China, New Zealand has an interest in contributing what it can to help Biden restore his country to its rightful place as “the shining city upon a hill”.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant, whose clients have included the National and Act parties. These views are his own.

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