Kevin Rudd Steps Out Into the World with Elan

July 14, 2008

Living abroad can be a useful exercise for an analyst, not only for the insight it gives you into the world but for the line of sight it provides back to your own country. Viewed from a Washington perch, the foreign policy performance of the Rudd Government in its first six months has been strong.

Viewed from a Washington perch, the foreign policy performance of the Rudd Government in its first six months has been strong.

The Prime Minister has consolidated our security alliance with the United States by putting it on a more businesslike footing, while indicating Australia’s willingness to continue sharing our ally’s burdens.

Kevin Rudd has shown considerable agility in his management of the China relationship, too. During his April visit, he opted to balance his Mandarin speaking, which delighted his hosts, with plain speaking on human rights in Tibet, which no doubt disappointed them.

In each case, Rudd pulled off the neat trick of solidifying a bilateral relationship with a great power while establishing an appropriate level of independence from it.

Relations with Japan could have been finessed better at the start, but the Government has moved quickly to remedy that problem. Last month the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, hosted a successful visit by his Indian counterpart and that relationship looks set to strengthen, despite disagreement on uranium exports.

The Government has rejected its predecessor’s ideological approach to the United Nations, preferring to work pragmatically within the organisation to advance Australia’s interests. It has walked away from the Howard government’s pointless refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Australia is now engaged, at long last, in serious policy work on climate change.

Canberra has also announced programs of work on Asia-Pacific regional architecture and nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The latter is particularly well-timed, given an emerging view among security hard-heads in Washington in favour of significant cuts to nuclear arsenals and encouraging statements by both presidential candidates. Rudd has signalled the seriousness with which he takes these two initiatives by the calibre of the individuals he has tapped to lead them.

This record may not be perfect, but for a new government it is impressive. To provide historical context, consider the early foreign policy performance of the Howard government, described by one sympathetic observer as “nervous and uncertain”. In its first year, that government botched the race debate generated by Pauline Hanson, which caused many in our region to question our bona fides. It scrapped a concessional finance scheme for developing countries without proper consultation, undercutting our regional soft power.

The China relationship was damaged by the government’s clumsiness and indiscipline. Mistakes and distractions continued into the second year, with the downgrading of Radio Australia’s coverage of South-East Asia and the accidental disclosure of sensitive assessments of Pacific Island ministers. Indeed, it took the Howard government several years to hit its foreign policy straps.

Notwithstanding this historical benchmark, Rudd’s early record has been marked fairly hard in the nation’s opinion columns.

Critics have belaboured the Government’s initial misstep on Japan, losing a sense of the issue’s true proportions. Some have prejudged Rudd’s initiatives on regional architecture and nuclear weapons because of the manner of their announcement. It is much too early to say how these two exercises will turn out, but we do know that the gears of the international system move when political leaders will a change and skilfully apply pressure to achieve it, not when perfect diplomatic consultations are allowed to unfold (although they surely don’t hurt).

For example, the Howard government’s preferred regional vehicle, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation grouping, was conceived by the then prime minister, Bob Hawke, in Seoul in 1989 without extensive prior discussions with Asian governments or, for that matter, with the various arms of the Australian government.

Occasionally the criticisms have had a curiously bipolar feel to them.

Some of the same commentators who judged Rudd’s first big overseas trip to be overly long, for instance, also urged that he make more stops along the way.

In a display of considerable chutzpah, foreign affairs budget cuts have been critiqued by members of the previous government, which presided over the stagnation of that budget relative to defence and intelligence.

Politicians who once accused Labor of having a “fortress Australia” mentality and confining itself too narrowly to regional affairs now accuse Labor of frittering away its efforts on global issues that are remote from the concerns of Australian taxpayers.

Questions have been raised about the cost of campaigning for a UN Security Council seat, although any resources expended in that effort will pale into insignificance next to the cost of our involvement in President George Bush’s foolhardy Iraq war, and do much more to boost our global influence.

A few in the Bush Administration, grown accustomed to the Howard approach, feel discombobulated by Canberra’s new direction, but most in Washington, and certainly those who would staff a Barack Obama administration, are impressed by the Rudd Government’s energetic start.