It did not take long. After Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s most magnetic resource besides ironsand, announced on January 19 that she no longer had “enough in the tank” to continue as Prime Minister and would step down from leadership of her party in February, suggestions began to roll in for what she might do next.
Ardern electrified the international community, which usually only pays attention to New Zealand when it’s time for cricket or a Lord of the Rings movie. Her frankness, humanity and empathy stood in stark contrast to the many autocratic idealogues who have led nations at the same time as she has. Her deft communication during crises such as the Christchurch shooting, the volcano eruption, and the pandemic were globally admired.
“I have no doubt she’ll find new ways to remain at the forefront of issues she’s most passionate about, including climate change and gun safety,” said philanthropist and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Her strong and decisive approach to the pandemic and the mass shooting at Christchurch—leading with pragmatism, facts, and resolve—reflected her approach to climate action, too, and I look forward to seeing where her commitment to service will lead her next.”
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Other leaders have taken their international popularity to the U.N., including one of Ardern’s forbears, Helen Clark, who was Prime Minister of New Zealand for nine years. Six months after she lost the 2008 election, she became head of the United Nations Development Program. More recently, Michelle Bachelet, two-time president of Chile and, like Ardern, a progressive icon, was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 2018 to 2022.
“There are U.N agencies that would be keen to get her expertise,” says Andrew Hudson, CEO of Centre for Policy Development, an Australian think tank that weighs in on issues in the South East Asian region. “She will be very well sought after on the international stage.” U.N agencies, however, are notoriously bound by protocol and authorized speech, and Ardern’s world-famous candor and authenticity may not be strengths in that context. Moreover, democratic leaders often struggle at the U.N., where an ability to mobilize a crowd is less important than a stomach for painstaking negotiation and committee-wrangling. Neither Clark nor Bachelet were considered very successful in their role.
Marilyn Waring, the pioneering economist who served nine years as a New Zealand MP, doubts Ardern will want to leave New Zealand for a while, or to do anything much but be with her family. She says she didn’t really recover from her own stint in public office for about a decade. “Things will start happening immediately that she can just put off because they’ll always be there, like major international invitations to make keynote addresses at very high fees,” says Waring. “At some point, she could become a special envoy.” U.N. Special Envoys are appointed for a fixed amount of time by the Secretary General to investigate global issues of concern. Former leaders George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown have all been Special Envoys.
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Ardern is already familiar with the issues of the region, has a good reputation in the Pacific and has shown leadership in areas such as climate change. “All the different U.N. agencies—whether it’s the United Nations Environment Programme, or UNESCO—they all have pretty big Pacific Island presences,” says Hudson. “She could even end up being Pacific head of an agency like that, which might enable her to stay in New Zealand.” Another issue that regional experts predict she’d be perfect for is migration. “There’s just so many challenges, especially in the Asia Pacific region when it comes to refugees and so little leadership from anyone,” says Hudson. “There are more and more boats coming out of Cox’s Bazar, and the whole Rohingya refugee situation is so dire.”
If she does decide to explore international opportunities, which some have predicted, she could head a humanitarian organization. David Miliband, a former Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs in the U.K., joined the International Rescue Committee, which works with refugees, after his stint in office. Former leaders or high governmental officials are prized among Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and foundations for the attention they bring to an issue, their proven persuasive skills and of course, their contact list. “It’s the PM networks that you cannot buy,” says the head of a public-private partnership based at the U.N., who was not authorized to speak on Ardern and therefore asked not to be named. “She could use that to great effect globally—such as calling up [Canadian Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau or Xi [Jinping, China’s leader], on an issue she cares about, such as climate change or gender equality.”
A New Foundation
She could also take on something global closer to home. Her outsize international popularity, empathy and charisma suggest to some in the NGO field that she could start her own foundation, as the Obamas and Clintons have. Ardern would also “obviously make a spectacular New Zealand ambassador for anywhere at all,” says Waring. But she notes that Ardern probably hasn’t had much time to think about next steps, nor will she until she can wake up in the morning without a big red box of documents waiting for her beside the bed. “If you’ve had this 24/7 job that every ounce of you has gone into it, you don’t know what you want. You haven’t been allowed to have that kind of thought since you entered parliament.”
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The first step, then, is refilling those tanks, and—according to Ardern—getting her daughter started at school and her wedding completed. A significant step away from the public eye may be even more necessary for Ardern than other leaders. “This wasn’t ever a clinically detached Prime Minister,” says Waring. “She’s a very empathetic, very compassionate person who brought her heart and soul to it, so she is exhausted on every front imaginable.”