Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand wears a Maori cloak to meet the Queen at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting April 19, 2018 (Photo by Victoria Jones - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The good leader delusion

Woke leaders are able to disguise their more cynical realpolitik

Artillery Row

In today’s international theatre, the quickest way for a leader to show their virtuousness and benevolence is to put their name to a stock of causes; a deep concern for the environment, a concern for refugees and a commitment for more open borders, an opposition to nationalism and populism, and endless talk of cooperation and global peace.

Some of these things are, of course, important. But other attributes which are also important, and were once the marks of heroism, such as toughness and a readiness to confront hostile actors, are now deeply subordinate to the above, if significant at all. What’s more, appeasement of such actors is almost inconsequential for a leader’s reputation. Or at least, for certain leaders.

Take for example New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who is often glamourised on the world stage as a haven of liberal politics. Her policies tick all the right boxes: environmentalism, feminism, and a refugee-friendly humanitarianism. She dresses in Maori cloaks to meet the Queen, takes maternity leave from Prime Ministerial duties, and – of particular delight of her admirers – sends veiled insults to Donald Trump. All of which has helped present her as a kind of antidote to the populist politics that is apparently taking the West backwards.

Ardern’s government has been quietly cosying up to the Chinese Communist Party

But tucked neatly beneath this halo is a less admirable, but equally important fact about her leadership; Ardern’s government has been quietly cosying up to the Chinese Communist Party, much to the dismay of New Zealand’s other Five Eyes allies. Uncomfortable about upsetting her country’s now largest trading partner, Ardern’s government has stayed out of joint condemnations of China’s malign activities by other allies. New Zealand was the only Five Eyes country not to join a statement condemning China’s destruction of any remaining democracy on Hong Kong in January, and another joint statement with several other nations on China’s interference in the WHO report on the origins of coronavirus in March.

Australia, whose challenging of Beijing’s bullying has left it on the receiving end of economic coercion, has effectively been left out to dry by its regional Five Eyes ally, being told patronisingly by New Zealand’s Trade Minister that Australia should show more “respect” and “diplomacy” to China. Such cautiousness — or to be less generous, cowardice — can’t be excused by market dependency; Australia’s exports to China constitute a higher share of its overall value in exports than do New Zealand’s, making it more vulnerable to economic coercion, and yet it is Australia left taking all the blows in trade skirmishes. So much for unity.

There is also the fact of a former CIA analyst telling a United States Congress hearing in 2019 of some of Ardern’s Labour Party’s biggest fundraisers being linked to the Chinese Communist Party. This would be unsurprising, considering Beijing’s desire to keep friendly governments in power. If true, however, this suggests a sketchy cynicism within Ardern’s government that you may think would count against the liberal credentials that have elevated her.

Merkel and Ardern’s liberal and humanitarian credentials seems to buy them reputational immunity

A similar delusion has formed in the reputation of saint Angela Merkel, that other beacon of western liberalism, who has often been bestowed with the title of “leader of the free world”. Her effective invitation to millions of migrants into Germany — and by extent, into Europe — has doubtless been instrumental in fostering this image, as have her green credentials and her country’s leadership of that enlightened force of western progress, the European Union. 

But it is a curious leader of the free world who actively assists and partners with one of that very free world’s biggest adversaries, which is just what Germany’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Russia (a landmark Merkel project) does. The pipeline that will transport Russian gas directly to Germany makes Europe more dependent on Russian gas, thereby undermining western sanctions on Russia. It will also allow Russia to bypass Ukrainian land and the $2 – 3 billion in transit fees it currently pays to Ukraine each year, effectively cancelling the only remaining leverage the besieged country has against its aggressive neighbour.

Merkel and Ardern’s liberal and humanitarian credentials seems to buy them reputational immunity from fostering friendly relations with hostile countries — ones which, incidentally, are some of the most illiberal and inhumane actors around. It’s not an immunity that is enjoyed by leaders of a so-called “populist” stripe. During Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, his apparent sympathies towards President Putin received enormous outrage, and rightly so. But even as the Trump administration demonstrated much opposition to Russia in its foreign policies , this failed to hinder the influence of “Russia-gate”. Notably, the allegations of CCP-linked funds within Ardern’s circle haven’t gathered nearly as much conspiratorial momentum.

Tick the right boxes and you are able to disguise a rather cynical and amoral realpolitik

Trump’s bashing of NATO members for free-riding of America’s pay checks also drew all-round criticism for undermining a key western alliance. But when Ardern’s government publicly expresses concern about the “expanding remit of the Five Eyes”, as the foreign minister recently put it, she draws little ire from those who were interested in the “liberal world order” when Trump was accused of undermining it.

But tick the right boxes, market yourself as kind, compassionate and implacably environmental, and you are able to disguise a rather cynical and amoral realpolitik, which is the very antithesis of any such liberal humanitarianism. It’s a double standard that isn’t without consequence. When we allow these dubious tendencies to go unnoticed because of our over-elevation of other indicators of virtue it is a gift to our international adversaries. And if and when they gain more clout, those adversaries will have absolutely no interest in showing any of these virtues. Just ask the inhabitants of Hong Kong.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover