A decade ago, the first black President of the United State of America was elected. For those who want to enjoy that moment again, and revel in some of the best and highest political rhetoric we’ve seen in many a year, here’s his speech in Chicago when he first won:
I remember where I was when I heard that. That guy is in our town; a Democrat who is friendly, coherent, smart.
In just a few short years the axis of the world has tilted.
I don’t have to mention his successor Mr You-Know-Who, or compare him to President Obama. That’s too easy.
Let me simply say that the towering political leaders of our time now rest elsewhere – in Russia and China.
That impacts us in New Zealand.
With the investiture of Xi Jinping as China’s President for as long as he wishes, and the re-election of President Vladimir Putin until 2024, we are getting to that point where authoritarian regimes are exerting stronger and stronger influence compared to states who strongly support human rights and the rule of anything New Zealand might recognise as civil law.
This is good for no-one in New Zealand.
And it is also misleading to bracket Putin and Jinping together, when read through the lens of New Zealand interests.
New Zealand’s interests, as a small and indebted but wealthy and liberal and highly trade-dependent state, are in sustaining international orders that support trade and the free flow of capital to support our mortgages. That’s what pays the bills that afford our globally generous social welfare system.
We share little in common with Russia or its leader. A tiny few of Russia’s oligarchs like to holiday here as a mutation of the quarry-enclave economy that kept us afloat through the 19th century, in which all kinds of foreigners set up camp with compounds and extract stuff as fast as possible, with not a whole bunch of horizontal distribution to locals. We’ve welcomed it since we became a country, but this government is putting the brakes on a part of it.
Whereas China, and Chinese state interests, are here for good. Chinese culture and people and capital are a powerful presence, fully accepted as a strong part of who we are.
There are no Russian construction companies or cranes on our cities’ horizons – but Chinese developers are now some of the strongest infrastructure and hotel and apartment developers we now have.
How can New Zealand retain its democratic and sensitive liberal principles concerning human rights and diversity when in 2018 the situation is so different to the era of President Barack Obama? There has been a shock to the system, in the form of the repositioning of the U.S. and the U.K. The U.S. has withdrawn from CPTPP, threatened to withdraw from NAFTA, revised commitments to the Korea-U.S. Preferential Trade Agreement, and launched a full trade war on China through steel and aluminium tariffs. The United States has less and less alignment with our political interests.
My small hope is that more and more smaller countries see that the cost of being left out is greater in a cooperative rather than a divided world, so others may be willing to re-engage tomorrow. Small hope.
In terms of friends, New Zealand has far fewer than we had on the grounds of human rights and our old allies, and a lot more commercial partners through CPTPP. Which doesn’t answer the question posed above.
Certainly, Australia now wilfully ignores us, excludes us, and acts entirely in their interests.
New Zealand is too small, too interconnected, too vulnerable in its trade and capital and human flows, for similar self-involvement.
This is a major moment of international and ideological realignment for New Zealand, and it’s getting colder outside.
Obama’s presence here reminds us of how far and how fast that realignment is occurring.