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Speed dating, relationship building: Luxon to meet US, Nato leaders in Washington

Claire Trevett,
Publish Date
Tue, 9 Jul 2024, 8:10am

Speed dating, relationship building: Luxon to meet US, Nato leaders in Washington

Claire Trevett,
Publish Date
Tue, 9 Jul 2024, 8:10am

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon kicks off his visit to Washington DC early tomorrow morning, meeting US politicians at Capitol Hill before attending the Nato summit later in the week. 

In an interview with the NZ Herald ahead of his trip, Luxon said his first day in Washington DC was a chance for him to meet with both Republican and Democrat politicians, ahead of the US presidential elections in November. 

His invitation to the Nato summit in DC this week will also give the relatively new Prime Minister the chance for his first face to face contact with the 32 Nato leaders – including potentially US President Joe Biden and new British PM Keir Starmer, as well as those from Europe and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

He arrives in DC at an intriguing time as speculation continues around Biden’s re-election bid and Nato leaders ponder the potential return of Donald Trump as President. It will inevitably form part of the conversations between Nato leaders, not least because of Trump’s previous comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin and whether the European Nato members pay their fair share. 

Trump is due to address the Republican National Convention on July 15, soon after the Nato summit. 

Luxon would not be drawn on those issues, or whether the return of Trump made him nervous given Trump’s dislike of free trade. 

He stuck to the tried and true Prime Minister’s answer that “my job will be to work with whoever the American people deliver as their President”. 

However, as an avid observer of US politics Luxon will be assessing the mood of both US and Nato politicians after a disastrous debate for Biden sparked questions over whether he should step down and replaced. In the US, that debate and questions over his overall health continue. 

Hurricane Beryl, which hit Texas, has disrupted Luxon’s trip somewhat, forcing him to change his travel plans. It also appears to have scotched the chances of a meeting with the high profile Republican, Texas Senator Ted Cruz. 

However, Luxon will meet other former and current US politicians on both sides. 

“I feel it’s really important that New Zealand has deep relationships at multiple levels and on both sides of the aisle in the US, in the way that their system works,” Luxon said. 

“So it’s important I’m taking the opportunity to deepen the relationships we have and raise the profile of New Zealand amongst a number of decision-makers and political leaders. That’s really my focus.” 

Luxon is expected to meet the Democrat’s Georgia Senator Joe Ossoff (who also met with former PM Jacinda Ardern in 2022) before meeting other political figures on his first day. 

Luxon’s first Nato summit: Speed dating 

On Thursday morning, the Nato summit will begin at the Walter E. Washington Convention Centre. 

It will be the first time Luxon has met many of the 32 leaders and so his main job at his first Nato summit will be contact building: trying to get meetings or at least some chat on the sidelines with as many other leaders as he can. 

In DC he will be on what officials call a “speed-dating” exercise of the Nato leaders. 

“It’s essentially a chance with the European Nato leaders to talk about Ukraine, Zelenskyy will be there as well, and I just want to be able to pick up a conversation again around where the global situation, European situation is sitting. 

“My job is to build as many relationships to advance New Zealand’s national interest as much as I can. I really enjoy these kinds of forums and I enjoy these meetings, so it’s a great chance for me to build those relationships.” 

As the host with the eyes of the world on him, Biden will have a jam-packed agenda, but Luxon will be hoping for at least an informal “pull-aside” on the sidelines of the meetings if he cannot secure a more formal one-on-one. 

While he had met former British PM Rishi Sunak he was yet to meet Starmer, who will at the Nato summit. He also knows former Netherlands PM Mark Rutte, who takes over as the head of Nato after Jens Stoltenberg steps down later this year. 

PM Christopher Luxon meets Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo in June, 2024. Photo / Nate McKinnonPM Christopher Luxon meets Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo in June, 2024. Photo / Nate McKinnon 

After meeting Japan’s PM Fumio Kishida on a recent trip to Japan, Luxon said he was looking forward to meeting Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol for the first time 

Australia’s PM Anthony Albanese has opted not to attend, an apparent response to some criticism for the amount of time he is spending overseas. Instead, his deputy PM and Defence Minister Richard Marles will attend. 

The war in Ukraine is top of the agenda and Luxon said there would be more to say about New Zealand’s contribution later in the week. So far that totals about $100 million, as well as the deployment of troops to train Ukraine soldiers. That was recently extended until mid-2025. 

The PM condemned Russia’s missile attack on the Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital in Kyiv overnight, saying it underlined Putin’s appalling tactics. 

“In Washington this week, I’ll underline that New Zealand continues to stand firmly with Ukraine. Slava Ukraini.” 

Nato members are expected to discuss the form and extent of future support for Ukraine. 

They have so far resisted President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s bid to become a Nato member while the war was ongoing, lest it trigger the requirement for a collective defence, however, Stoltenberg has said a “bridge” could be set out, showing the path for future membership. 

‘I love it’ – Luxon on the foreign relations part of his job 

Luxon goes in well-prepped, courtesy of his long-standing fascination with US politics. He lived and worked in US for years as a businessman. He said that dated back to when he was child. 

“I’ve always had an interest in US Presidents and read a lot about them. I’ve always been interested in political leadership and leadership in general.” 

Asked if that made it difficult for him to be restrained in airing his views on the state of US politics, he said “not at all”. 

“I’m determined to deal with whichever leader from whichever country the people of that country deliver. Because my job is to be the great advocate and champion of New Zealand’s national interests. It’s my job to build a relationship and make that work for New Zealand.” 

He has made boosting New Zealand’s international relationships a priority of his tenure as PM, and says he is enjoying that part of his job – putting it down to his previous life as a businessman overseas. 

“I love it. I always knew I’d love it. I’d spent a lot of time overseas and as someone who’d lived and worked in these places, I know them fairly well and positioning New Zealand in the right way is important. 

“It’s just a chance to build relationships with leaders. At the end of the day, as an extrovert and as someone who’s spent time in many of these countries, they are markets I know well, they are countries I know well. And their leaders, I know it’s important for New Zealand to have that relationship.” 

Why NZ is invited to Nato: Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific 

It is only the third year New Zealand’s Prime Minister has been invited to the Nato summit, along with the leaders of the other “Indo-Pacific Four” group which have been partners for Nato for some time: Australia, Japan and Korea. Former Prime Ministers Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins went in 2022 and 2023 respectively. 

There is no question of those countries becoming Nato members – membership is restricted to European countries. However, Luxon said it was an important group to be partnered with. 

“We’ve got a set of values we stand up for in New Zealand, international rules-based system, sovereignty of nation states, freedom of navigation, all that we hold really dear.” 

The boosting of the involvement of the Indo-Pacific 4 was a reflection of growing Nato concern about China and North Korea and the impact of Indo-Pacific issues on the European region. 

Those include concerns about China and North Korea’s relationships with Russia and support for its war on Ukraine, as well as instability in the South China Seas – a key shipping route for European trade. 

The countries also cooperate on issues such as cyber security after both Russia and China were blamed for hacking exercises – something Luxon raised directly with China’s Premier Qiang Li on Li’s recent trip to New Zealand. 

Luxon expected the Nato summit talks to focus on what was happening in Ukraine and other global flashpoints. “And obviously I’ll be coming at it from an Indo-Pacific perspective with the things around our broader region.” 

“Having spent time in Japan where you see challenges like North Korea and intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear programmes being built, when you think about tensions and flashpoints around Taiwan and the South China Seas, the proximity of Russia.” 

He said New Zealand had made a point of supporting the monitoring of UN sanctions on North Korea with the recent boost of its deployment to that region. 

“The reason we are doing that is because actually when you see the potentiality of weapons moving from North Korea to Russia to be used in the war against Ukraine, when you see sanctions being broken, we believe in the rules-based system and we’ve got to uphold them. So I think that’s where you do get the connectivity between the Atlantic-Euro and Indo-Pacific, there’s a touch point there that makes the two theatres in the world align. But more importantly it is the like-minded nature.” 

The business end of the trip: San Francisco 

Luxon’s visit to the US will wrap up with a day in San Francisco during which he will turn back into a businessman again and tap into his old connections to try to attract investment into New Zealand. 

He said there were large pension and wealth funds in America. “And it’s important to be able to turn them on to New Zealand. I know a few players in that world. It’s making sure we make the case for why investing in New Zealand would be a good thing.” 

“We, as a country, struggle to attract direct foreign investment to New Zealand and we have so many big investments we need to make around infrastructure, for example, and science, technology and innovation. We need to be more welcoming of that foreign capital into New Zealand.” 

However, there may also be a bit of political endnote to his US trip. 

He has previously indicated he might meet California Governor Gavin Newsom while in San Francisco, as Ardern did in 2022 when the pair inked an agreement on technology and climate change. 

Newsom’s name is among those touted as a potential presidential candidate should Biden opt out. 

Claire Trevett is the NZ Herald’s political editor, based at Parliament in Wellington. She started at the NZ Herald in 2003 and joined the Press Gallery team in 2007. She is a life member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. 

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