Now that last week’s political horse race is over, what are the implications for Australia’s role in the world? How should we rate former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s foreign policies – and what can we expect from Julia Gillard? In the months leading up to the spill, the commentary on Rudd’s government was manic: every snafu was a scandal; every pause or setback was a humiliation. In retrospect, his international achievements were impressive given the length of his tenure in office.
Rudd constructed a network of connections with world leaders that was unusual in its breadth and depth. He developed an unlikely friendship with Barack Obama, a president who is notoriously reserved with other heads of government. He took a position on the Afghanistan war that was principled and not lacking in courage. Rudd’s role in urging the designation of the G-20 as the world’s leading forum for international economic cooperation will be remembered as his most important foreign policy win. This battlefield promotion squeezed Australia into the world’s inner councils and added significantly to our national prestige; it will bring Rudd’s successors into regular contact with the world’s most powerful leaders and turn their thinking toward global issues.
Rudd was a committed and effective international player after the global financial crisis. He increased Australia’s soft power through his apology to the stolen generations and his repudiation of the Pacific solution. He beefed up Australia’s hard power with a tough-minded Defence White Paper. His re-engagement with the United Nations, after a decade of pointless grandstanding, has restored balance to Australian foreign policy.
Bilateral relations with Japan and India were troubled during Rudd’s prime ministership. Australia-China ties never attained the level of harmony promised by his familiarity with that country, although the problems emanated mainly from the other side. Indeed, Beijing’s bipolar policies have caused similar friction in its relations with Washington, with capitals in Europe, South America and Asia – even with Moscow.
Rudd played too dominant a role in foreign policy-making. This gummed up the works; it undercut the authority of Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and other officials and made them overreliant on his judgments, which he did not always have sufficient time to reach. He came up with too many foreign policy initiatives. Yet these weaknesses were the defects of his qualities: namely, his enormous knowledge, energy and ambition, all of which came as a relief after the smug and reactive policies of the Howard era.
Rudd’s record looks strong when laid next to the first terms of other popularlyelected prime ministers. Few of the highlights of Bob Hawke’s foreign policy, for example the establishment of APEC and the upgrading of US-Australian defence ties, occurred in his first term. John Howard’s early tenure had a Keystone Kops feel: awkward relations with Washington; conflicts with Beijing; difficulties with developing nations; leaked intelligence assessments of Pacific leaders; international concern at the botched response to Pauline Hanson’s rise. Howard eventually righted his ship, but it took him several years to develop the assuredness Rudd displayed on day one.
Like all recent prime ministers except Rudd, Gillard comes to the job with little direct foreign policy experience. We don’t know much about her views on the world. As Deputy Prime Minister, she located herself in the mainstream of Australia’s diplomatic tradition with well-received visits to the United States and Israel. She knows Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and she impressed leaders in Iraq. Starting from first principles, we can hazard three guesses at Gillard’s foreign policy approach. First, she will be a natural at the personal diplomacy that greases the global wheels. She is smart, funny and persuasive; a good listener as well as a good talker.
Second, as a brisk pragmatist with an eye to the main game, she may slough off a couple of Rudd’s less successful foreign policy initiatives, such as the Asia-Pacific Community.
Finally, she is likely to establish a more normal relationship with her foreign minister than has obtained recently. Gillard is a skilful professional politician who knows that prime ministers rise and fall principally on their domestic performance. She will allow the foreign minister to manage the government’s international agenda, only intervening when issues rise to a certain level, or when they touch on one or two international themes that she intends to claim as her own. Even in her first days in office, it is clear she has a good feel for when to exercise her authority and when to allow others to make the running.
Who she selects to make the running on foreign policy, should Labor win the looming election, will be crucial. The extension of Smith’s mandate to cover trade (at least temporarily) indicates that Gillard trusts him and may wish to keep him on. On the other hand, the transitional nature of these arrangements also preserves the option of Rudd’s return to foreign affairs down the track. Like national politics, international politics can be treacherous and brutal as well as creative and inspirational. Game on, indeed.
Editor’s Note: This is the original version of the opinion article published in an edited form in Australian Financial Review, 1 July 2010, p 67.