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Rudd's rejected essay

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COMMENTS

15 September 2009 18:28

Sorry to be so late to this, but to my embarrassment I only discovered today that Kevin Rudd's rejected essay for Foreign Affairs has emerged, thanks to an FOI request by The Age.

In his review of the article, Greg Sheridan criticises The Age's Daniel Flitton* for mocking Rudd's jargonistic and cliché-ridden text. But Rudd is guilty of far worse than just 'a few inevitably Latinate phrases', as Sheridan puts it. The essay is dense and ponderous, and some passages are flat-out ungrammatical (eg. most of p.5).

This is not a minor point. Dan Flitton's mockery of the piece is deserved, but what it obscures is that Rudd's use of cliché and jargon may actually be more than just an annoying tic. Equally, for Sheridan to imply that the focus should be on the arguments rather than the language overlooks the connection between ideas and how they are expressed.

This is even more important when one is inclined to agree with what has been written. Rudd's idea to use the G20 and the proposed Asia Pacific Community to manage the new global order seems sound. But Rudd's dessicated language only makes me doubt that intuition, since it opens up the possibility that his proposals are as careless and lifeless as the language used to express them.

For example, when Rudd comes to the point in his essay where he has to describe how his favoured international order will emerge, he leans on the familiar rhetorical crutch of 'political will'. This is one of those alarm bell phrases indicating a massive disconnect between 'things as they are' and 'things as we wish them to be'. It merely says that, for the former to become the latter, various important people will have to agree on a single course of action and be motivated to overcome obstacles to their common goal.

There is no acknowledgment that the parochial interests of these leaders may interfere with such a vision, and in fact, Rudd later says that the only thing preventing 'fundamental global reform' is 'layers of national and international bureaucracy'. If only it were so. But in fact national interests will be far more important in frustrating Rudd's ambition than mere bureaucracy; Rudd's use of 'political will' only obscures the huge challenge confronting him.

Rudd's essay reinforces Orwell's point that '(B)y using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself'. Here's a section on relations with China:

We therefore need to work with the extant political vocabulary within China's national discourse to reinforce this common ground with the West, the wider world and the wider region. With this framework, we should forge with China a new consensus on the current forms of global and regional governance.

To be fair, the preceding text offers some context for this passage, but it is nevertheless bewilderingly opaque. This should concern us not only as readers, but as voters — does Rudd really know what he means and what he wants?

Consider some other examples. Rudd says '...a G20 arrangement is capable of acting as a bridge — a brokering mechanism — between national governments on the one hand and multilateral institutions...' But a bridge only connects two points; it does not broker between them. In another passage, he says China is 'enmeshed in a myriad of ways with the unfolding global reality of the 21st century'. How does one enmesh with a reality? And in a third, he says habits of regional consultation will 'diminish the risks of miscommunication, miscalculation and crisis management'. But why would we want to diminish (the risks of) crisis management?

The point here is not to make fun of Rudd but to question the policy direction. If Sheridan is right that this essay is 'an attempt to deal Australia into the heart of global governance', then we are entitled to ask whether Rudd really knows what he's doing. Does his essay express a coherent vision for Australia's place in the world?

One final point of disagreement with Greg Sheridan, who says that '(a)t every point Rudd rejects the notion of US decline, stating explicitly: "The rise of the Asia Pacific is not a story of US decline."'

That Rudd quote is narrowly correct, in that the US continues to grow in absolute measures of power. But elsewhere Rudd makes it quite plain that he sees the US in relative decline in the Asia Pacific. How else to read the claim that 'the relative strategic weight of China is likely to grow' and 'the absolute margin of US pre-eminence will continue to narrow.' If those two things are true, then the US is in decline relative to China — there's just no way around it.

* Disclosure: Dan and I were colleagues at the Office of National Assessments.

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