Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 01:39 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 01:39 | SYDNEY

The Rudd foreign policy legacy


Graeme Dobell

24 June 2010 12:12

How to write on the foreign policy legacy of a Prime Minister who governed like a state premier and was disposed like a premier no longer dominating the nightly news?

Kevin Rudd had the finest foreign policy qualifications of any of Australia's 26 national leaders. Yet less than one term in office means that Rudd will be a footnote in Australia's international story.

A common element in Rudd's domestic and foreign policy performances is the gap between ambition and delivery. The big win Rudd achieved for Australia was to ensure that the economy kept sailing while the rest of the world was sunk by a huge crisis. In conception, the Rudd response worked magnificently. The execution will be remembered for dodgy roof batts and over-priced school canteens.

The problem for Rudd is that governments seldom get rewarded for what does not happen. Avoiding recession may look like a significant achievement in many other parts of the world. After two decades of uninterrupted growth, Australians seem to view that as a minimum competency requirement.

Rudd also extracted a major international win for Australia out of the global crisis. He was one of the main urgers who ensured that the G20 emerged as pre-eminent, pushing Europe's G7 down the ladder. Mark this as a virtuoso performance of Kevin-on-the-telephone persistence. Out in voter land, though, it tended to be a case of 'G-what?' rather than 'G-whizz!'

If the G20 achievement didn't gain the popular kudos it might, neither did the Prime Minister suffer much for the over-reach of the Asia Pacific Community initiative. The Community mutated into a lower case 'c' community discussion because neither China nor ASEAN were going to be led by Australia in building the Asian institutions for the Asian century.

Rudd was correct in his description of the challenges Asia faces. His delivery failed. Or more accurately, he could not get others to follow the course he wanted to steer from his diagnosis to his solution. As an exercise in regional diplomacy, it was a dismal bust. The Prime Minister of Australia set out to achieve something big for the Asia Pacific but was out-thought and out-fought by Singapore. The Asia Pacific Community/community idea will not detain Australia's first female leader for a moment.

Afghanistan is the legacy which will continue to trouble Julia Gillard. As a war-time leader, Rudd did as he promised. He withdrew Australia from Iraq without damaging the US alliance. And, as he pledged, Australia put extra resources into Afghanistan, but he refused to step up to take leadership from the Dutch in our part of Afghanistan. Australia will go no further than its present troop contribution.

Australia has its first left wing Labor Prime Minister in a lifetime, but one thing that will not change is Labor's adherence to the US alliance —Australia will go as soon as the US goes. The big leadership change on Afghanistan is not Rudd, but the dismissal of Stanley McChrystal.

Rudd delivered on his Millennium Goal promise to steadily lift foreign aid. In the South Pacific, Rudd announced a new era of partnership with the Islands. Bureaucratically, that is being built. Politically, this rates as another area of big promises but poor performance. Australia is the current chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, but when Duncan Kerr stepped down, the post of Parliamentary Secretary for the South Pacific died with him. The message for the Islands seems to be partnership but not much attention.

In a report card on Rudd's foreign policy at the start of this year, I gave him a B-plus, mainly for the G20 liberal multilateralist achievement. But the policy somersault on climate change takes the final mark to a straight B. Abandoning that policy meant ditching a crusade that defined Rudd. What did the Prime Minister believe in that was worth fighting for? Abandoning the climate issue deeply damaged Rudd's ability to tell a story to the voters, as opposed to the tough bilateralism of John Howard.

Musings on Rudd's bilateral achievements show the ups and downs involved. Rudd fostered two relationships that are powering along, even accelerating (South Korea and the US); one relationship that is ticking over relatively smoothly despite some big bumps on the road (Indonesia); but three that are running rough, perhaps even going backwards (China, Japan and India).

Little blame attaches to Rudd for the Japan problems. Tokyo has been changing its prime ministers even more rapidly than Canberra.

China will be the great unknowable about what Rudd could have achieved as a foreign policy prime minister. He confronted honestly and openly the challenge that China presents for Australia and the region. That public honesty cost him some deep wounds from the rulers in Beijing. China had become used to the reticent pragmatism of John Howard. Rudd calmly negotiated an honourable ceasefire in the diplomatic war declared and waged by China.

Perhaps the true future for Kevin Rudd on Australia's national stage is as our China seer, helping to steer our dealings with the gigantic question mark in Asia's future.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo, used under a Creative Commons license.