Kevin Rudd is in exactly the right place
Kevin Rudd might be egotistical, self-serving, mistake prone and a control freak but he is perfectly suited to the foreign ministry.
Although Rudd demanded the foreign affairs portfolio at the barrel of a gun, it’s a win-win situation for him and Australia. Rudd gets to travel the world and prepare for a post-political career and the country gets can rest assured that its biggest political liability has one of the least influential portfolios in government.
Rudd cannot do damage as Australia’s chief diplomat because diplomacy is the most overrated profession since travel agents. International relations is not about the high politics of the diplomatic elite; rather, it is about globalisation and interactions between individuals and firms operating within a global market.
Australian diplomacy is especially overrated because of a lack of clout in international politics. Rudd has defined Australian foreign policy as “middle power diplomacy” in which Australia would wield influence on such issues as “global economics, security and environmental challenges.”
The rhetoric of Australia as an active middle power, punching above its weight in international affairs, is reminiscent of the Gareth Evans-era in foreign policy.
However, Australia will always be a toothless tiger over complex international issues such as climate change, nuclear disarmament and global poverty. These may be worthy goals but Australia’s influence is extremely limited because power determines outcomes in international relations and Australia, as an isolated country with a small population, has little of it.
As an international lightweight, the two most important international issues for the Australian government are security and multilateral trade liberalisation, and both have been outsourced to the Defence Minister and Trade Minister.
The main responsibilities for a Foreign Minister is to represent Australia at international organisations and to manage the aid budget. Rudd, therefore, should be considered a junior Minister in the Gillard government.
Political leaders will talk up the importance of diplomacy because, naturally, they want to be seen to be performing a critical role. The fallacy is reinforced by self-interested academics and journalists, who want to feel important by being experts in a field that is important. It’s a vicious cycle fed by the belief that diplomacy matters, when in reality it doesn’t.
One example of the irrelevance of diplomacy was the Wikileaks disclosure of a private meeting between Rudd and United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
Rudd presented himself as a “brutal realist on China” and argued that the United States might have to “use force” if China doesn’t accept the current international order. In the meeting, Rudd also played the diplomatic tough guy by boasting that his plans for an Asia Pacific community was primarily designed to contain Chinese influence.
The Wikileaks revelation has diminished the personal standing of Rudd as a diplomat. Egyptian foreign minister Aboul Gheit, for example, delivered a classic backhander to Rudd in a joint press conference last December, declaring that “what we say in meetings, we say publicly.” The implication, of course, is that Rudd says in meetings what his audience wants to hear.
But the leaked account of Rudd’s meeting with Clinton had no impact on Australia’s relationship with China. If diplomacy mattered, China would have respond furiously to Australia’s chief foreign representative portraying it as an international threat that must be countered.
But it didn’t.
China and Australia have a codependent economic relationship, even if one is more dependent on the other.
China is Australia’s largest export market and its capital funds our fledgling mining projects. And on China’s part, Australia is a secure source of raw materials.
If both countries weren’t making money from the other then a diplomatic faux pas might have been worth responding to.
Another example of the trivial nature of diplomacy was the recent non-issue of Rudd telling an Arab audience that Israel should sign up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
It wasn’t Rudd’s finest moment as even the Greens would concede that Israel faces unique security challenges as a democracy in a region of hostile authoritarian states, whose arch-nemesis is a theocratic country bent on acquiring a nuclear arsenal.
Although Rudd was merely aiming to please his Arab audience, it was an unfortunate thought bubble.
The Australian government will never officially adopt the position that Israel should sign the NPT, and therefore Israel were unconcerned by the public musings of an attention-seeking Foreign Minister. Bilateral relations between Australia and Israel are still strong and both countries will continue to exchange goods and money.
Many people are concerned that Rudd will continue to be a mistake-prone Foreign Minister but these fears are overblown as foreign affairs is a largely unimportant portfolio.
Instead, we should be thankful that Gillard did not give Rudd an economic portfolio, in which he could have caused real damage.
As Foreign Minister, Rudd can travel the world, meet foreign dignitaries, insult foreign dignitaries behind their back to other foreign dignitaries and promote himself for a post-politics life, and we can be safe in the knowledge that due to the limitations of his role, he will neither promote nor threaten Australia’s interests.
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