Jacinda Ardern is labelling Russia's actions towards Ukraine as "morally bankrupt" and wants China to recognise its "crucial role" in upholding order in the world.
She also asked that the same worry about the militarisation of the Pacific region be matched by a concern for low-lying islands experiencing "the violence of climate change".
The Prime Minister's comments were made in a speech outlining New Zealand's foreign policy to think tank Lowy Institute in Sydney. It comes as the Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum got underway on Thursday, in which ministers from both sides of the Tasman would meet to discuss a number of topics like trade, health, climate change, indigenous business and the economy.
"It's grim out there," Ardern said as she reflected on the war in Ukraine, climate change, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Ardern emphasised New Zealand's upholding of its own independent foreign policy in the face of "imperfect" multilateral institutions like the UN.
"They have and they will fail us. And when they do fail, our first port of call must always be to find ways to make them stronger," she said.
"Equally, we cannot be left unable to respond to global challenges because we encounter dysfunction or worse, moral failings.
"In recent times there has been no better example of that than the failure of the UN to appropriately respond to the war in Ukraine because of the position taken by Russia in the Security Council.
"A morally bankrupt position, in the wake of a morally bankrupt, and illegal war."
She added New Zealand still thought institutions could act as mediators and, when required, judges when issues did arise.
In any position that New Zealand did take, Ardern said it was shaped by its identity as a Pacific nation.
As questions and concerns gathered over China's attempt to grow its influence in the Pacific, Ardern said Beijing's engagement in the region wasn't new, and neither were the likes of France, Japan, the UK, and the US' interests.
While some labelled China's recent moves in the Pacific as an Australian or New Zealand "foreign policy failure", Ardern argued it would be "wrong to position the Pacific in such a way that they have to 'pick sides'".
"These are democratic nations with their own sovereign right to determine their foreign policy engagements," Ardern said. "We can be country neutral in approach, but have a Pacific bias on the values we apply for these engagements."
Jennifer Hsu, a research fellow specialising in China relations at the Lowy Institute, told Q+A in May the money China was offering smaller Pacific countries, in particular, could tempt them into a deal that would add instability to the region.
In her speech, Ardern said on Thursday that the Pacific needed to be "free from coercion" and that the investment in the region "should be of high quality".
"And issues that affect the security of all of us, or may be seen as the militarisation of the region, should come through the PIF [Pacific Islands Forum] as set out in the Biketawa and Boe declaration, as such a change would rightly effect and concern many.
"Ultimately, rather than increased strategic competition in the region though, we need instead to look for areas to build and cooperate, recognising the sovereignty and independence of those for whom the region really is home," Ardern said.
She called trade a "bridge-builder" among nations.
"The trade relationship we share with China, for example, continues to grow, underpinned by our bilateral FTA [free-trade agreement].
"But even as China becomes more assertive in the pursuit of its interests, there are still shared interests on which we can and should cooperate.
"The post-war order and the rules that underpin it have supported China’s rise, and as a permanent member of the Security Council, China has a crucial role to play in upholding that order."
With the challenge of the digital world and climate change, the world needed to think "beyond traditional multilateralism" to build "smart multi-stakeholder coalitions" that would see Governments work with organisations, indigenous populations and industry on a set of problems.
"Climate change must be a foreign policy priority," Ardern said.
"While we all have a concern, and rightly so, about any moves towards the militarisation of our region, that must surely be matched by a concern for those who experience the violence of climate change."