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Rudd: Bewildering in Asia

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COMMENTS

25 June 2010 13:48

Some commentators are being too gentle on former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's foreign policy legacy.

Or is it too soon to speak of a legacy? Rumours and hints that he will replace Stephen Smith as foreign minister continue to circulate – and if this does indeed transpire, we will see a strenuous bid for policy continuity, with all the mixed results that will entail.

The very fact that Rudd brought to the leadership his own substantial knowledge and experience in international affairs underlines how disappointing many of the outcomes turned out to be. Graeme Dobell is right to emphasise Australia's admission to the G20 as the redeeming international accomplishment of Rudd's prime ministership. It will always be an open question whether this was something that only Rudd could have achieved.

I have to differ, however, with Andrew O'Neil's assessment that one of new PM Julia Gillard's biggest challenges will be 'ensuring that she maintains her predecessor's impressive management of Australia's key relationships in Asia and Washington'. Yes, Rudd and Obama hit it off as fellow centre-left intellectuals with big ideas. The alliance was a positive story for Rudd – and the Australian public agrees. But Gillard is well poised to manage the alliance, and one of her first moves as leader was to underline her commitment to this cornerstone of Australian security.

But Asia? Here Rudd's diplomacy was at its most bewildering and disappointing.

Two key major-power relationships bruised: Japan and India. A third – with China – subjected to a needless and sometimes counterproductive degree of personalisation. My colleague Andrew Shearer's advice that Gillard needs to 'depersonalise' Canberra-Beijing relations is right. Its implementation would be rather tricky with Rudd as foreign minister.

Perhaps Rudd's greatest misstep in our region was his confusing, lurching advocacy of a loosely-defined Asia-Pacific community. It was never quite clear what he wanted to achieve; what was clear was that for a long time he studiously ignored the need to consult other Asian governments on this, or to respect the fact that many of them had already done a decade's work on the subject and hardly needed to be told how to reinvent the wheel. Among other things, this 'initiative' generated a useless feud with otherwise like-minded Singapore, and is something most of the region would rather pretend never happened.

Another of Rudd's grand ambitions – Australia's pursuit of a seat on the UN Security Council – will no doubt remain government policy. And even without Rudd at the helm, I fear this fruitless, expensive, priority-distorting quest will continue, at great opportunity cost.

On defence and security, some credit is due. The 2009 Defence White Paper was sometimes ill-phrased, its media strategy involved an excess of China-threat rhetoric, and the big question of how to pay for its promised acquisitions remains unanswered. But Rudd will be remembered for advancing an ambitious, realist vision of Australian maritime power – and history may prove this to be broadly what the nation needed.

Finally, it is wrong to dismiss Rudd's commissioning, with Japan, of a major international report on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation as some sort of flight of fancy akin to the Asia-Pacific community. This project, conceived, co-chaired and overwhelmingly driven by Gareth Evans, did make an impact on the Obama Administration's thinking, encouraging the US to moderate its nuclear weapons posture, and helping pave the way for a reasonably successful review conference that prevented further fraying of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Modest outcomes, but real.

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