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November 01st 2010 print

Russell Trood

Kevin Rudd’s Foreign Policy Overshoot

The Rudd Government’s foreign policy legacy: grand plans and ideas but an elusive national interest.

Of the many failings of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership, most attention has focused on his problematic management of the domestic political agenda. In foreign affairs Rudd is widely perceived to have performed more impressively. This assessment, however, deserves closer scrutiny. Indeed, much that was wrong with Rudd’s policy-making at home was replicated in his policy-making abroad. While his international record as Prime Minister is not without some successes, overall it achieved less than promised and certainly less than Rudd and his admirers have claimed.

Kevin Rudd has a sophisticated understanding of the global strategic landscape and a well developed vision of Australia’s place in world affairs. It is a vision that places Australia on the high plains of influence, not on the lowlands of irrelevance. As Prime Minister, Rudd pursued this vision relentlessly. In the end, however, it went unrealised: too grand to be coherent, frustrated by unsympathetic forces abroad and undone by poor policy-planning at home. Now that Rudd has become Foreign Minister he has another opportunity to pursue his ambitions. There are many obstacles to this endeavour, not least the legacy of his foreign endeavours as Prime Minister.

Grand rather than merely ambitious, Rudd’s prime ministerial vision was pursued at a frenetic and uneven pace. This led to plans and policies which were often poorly conceived, erratically implemented, under-resourced and all too rarely focused on the essence of Australia’s national interests. The result was a foreign policy of confusions and contradictions which jeopardised some of Australia’s most valued international relationships, squandered limited budgetary resources on ill-conceived projects, allowed potentially important policy opportunities to go wanting, and facilitated a further decline in Australia’s representational presence abroad. With the manifestly ill-conceived mining resources profits tax, his government squandered much of the international goodwill it had garnered from the revival of the Australian economy after the global financial crisis, and compromised Australia’s reputation as a safe and stable place for international investment. The Rudd government’s growing reputation for policy incompetence at home spread rapidly to encompass what seemed increasingly like an effortlessly maladroit performance abroad.

Certainly, the international environment for the pursuit of Rudd’s foreign policy was challenging. Indeed, against the background of a world turned upside down by the global financial crisis, Rudd’s record internationally was not entirely without its virtues. Among other things, his government’s efforts to help reform the G20 and the architecture of international finance, fortify the US security relationship, increase Australia’s level of international developmental assistance, negotiate bilateral free trade agreements, build closer relations with South Korea and expand Australia’s contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) effort in Afghanistan, all deserve recognition as part of a respectable policy legacy. But even in relation to some of these achievements, the policy outcomes were compromised because from the very beginning Rudd’s foreign policy was crippled by some fatal weaknesses.

Rudd’s crowded agenda

Vaulting ambition has characterised every aspect of Kevin Rudd’s public life and no more so than in the area of foreign affairs. The extent of his aspirations for Australia’s international future were articulated exhaustively in countless pre-2007 election speeches and in the loquacious foreign affairs section of Labor’s 2007 election platform. To many observers, Labor’s plans had a manifest plausibility because unlike other prime ministers, save for Menzies in 1949 and perhaps Whitlam in 1972, Rudd had experience of and thus presumed expertise in foreign policy. Given what was to become the prime ministerial record, there is a plausible argument that this expertise was vastly over-rated, but this is probably, even now, a minority view. Before the 2007 election, the prevailing wisdom was that here would be a prime minister who more than any other in recent times had the knowledge to deal effectively with the international exigencies of his office.

In fact the Rudd agenda was unfocused, undisciplined and far too ambitious for a first-term government, especially one running with full sail into the head winds of the worst global financial crisis in over a generation. Within days of taking office the direction he intended to take Australia was made clear. He was in Bali, triumphantly accepting global acclaim for Australia having affixed its signature to the Kyoto Protocol. From that point on Rudd’s foreign affairs activism barely drew breath as he criss-crossed the world constantly expanding the policy agenda. This continued to be the practice until early this year when public disquiet about prime ministerial absences finally curtailed his globetrotting instincts. But not before Rudd had spent more time absent from Australia than any of his predecessors going back to Whitlam.

The ambitious agenda also became an increasingly incoherent one. Although not without some almost plausible conceptual foundations—some ideas about middle powers and a few policy objectives recast as “pillars” (Asia among them)—Rudd’s foreign policy seemed to be under constant risk of spinning out of control as issues came and went from the agenda. As a result, within a year of taking office Australia was, among other things, helping to reinforce the foundations of the failing global financial system, pursuing a seat on the United Nations Security Council, committed to refashioning the regional strategic architecture in the Asia-Pacific, crafting anew an international persona as a “middle power”—something the Coalition in government achieved in effect, minus the rhetoric—saving the planet from climate change, relaxing refugee policy and easing Australia’s strong border security arrangements, seeking a deeper engagement with both Africa and Europe, and underwriting efforts to strengthen the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Nor was this eclectic array of initiatives the limit of the Rudd activism: determined to make significant changes quickly, the government also began the preparation of a new Defence White Paper, commissioned a review of the proposal for a Department of Homeland Security (an idea subsequently abandoned), commenced work on the first national security statement and foreshadowed a new Counter-Terrorism White Paper.

Rudd’s policy-making

Much of this was Rudd’s personal policy agenda: it engaged his energy, intellect and vanity. At the same time he used the authority of his office and his unchallenged (and unchallengeable) knowledge of international affairs to take complete control of the policy process. From the day Rudd took office, Australian foreign policy was hostage to his complex personality, his wandering attention and fluctuating priorities, his ambitious international plans, his unruly style of decision-making and the centralised policy structures he engineered.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the length and breadth of the agenda, the speed at which it was being implemented and the control Rudd exercised over it, the policy process was placed under constant pressure. This made gruelling demands on the public servants required to manage it and the routines of policy formulation that are often critical to good policy development. If the process was not chaotic because of Rudd’s iron-fisted control, it was often dysfunctional in the sense that the attention Rudd gave to specific issues was erratic with the result that his government was unable to address competing priorities in the sustained way needed to drive the whole policy process forward. This militated against a coherent, strategic approach and sound policy outcomes, establishing precedents for policy action that were to become long-term weaknesses for Rudd’s foreign policy.

First, with Rudd supreme, setting the agenda and controlling the process, foreign policy formulation was quickly centralised in the Prime Minister’s office. In this respect foreign policy was treated little different from other areas of policy, as it was Rudd’s policy style to limit the role and input of all but a select few ministerial colleagues. But the problem was more acute in foreign affairs because of his unassailable position. As time went on he moved to reinforce this position through the development of a new, much enhanced bureaucratic structure built around a National Security and International Policy Group in his own department and the appointment of a co-ordinating National Security Adviser.

There has been a shift towards greater prime ministerial authority in foreign and defence policy in recent Australian governments, but under Rudd it gained massive momentum. The policy roles of the key national security departments narrowed and ministers were marginalised. This was an uneven process. The relationship between Rudd and Stephen Smith as Foreign Affairs Minister was almost that of master and servant. This left Smith, despite his considerable abilities, as the least independent and most under-utilised Foreign Minister since Senator Don Willesee under Whitlam. Rudd’s short-lived first Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, was even less respected. Fitzgibbon’s reluctant successor, John Faulkner, fared better, enjoying access and authority borne of seniority, experience, a capacity for sound judgment and a better temperament for the challenges of the portfolio.

There may well be good arguments for greater prime ministerial authority in relation to national security—it is notable for example that the new Cameron government in the United Kingdom has embarked upon this course. Yet without countervailing policy structures and processes to offset the dangers of an imperial prime ministership and opportunities for policy contestability, there is a high risk of poor policy outcomes. In the Rudd government this was a persistent threat made more acute by the fact that staff was spread thinly across the vast array of complex international issues: too much was being asked of too few, while the real expertise lay marginalised in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) or Defence. Rudd’s habit of imperial policy making was nowhere more in evidence than in the development of the Defence White Paper. His determination that it bear his strategic imprint delayed its release and produced a strategic assessment on a rising China at sharp difference with other government agencies, including Australia’s pre-eminent intelligence assessment organisations.

As the white paper experience underscored, the policy process was geared less to standard operating procedures and more to Rudd’s erratic work habits. Some issues could be dealt with in an efficient and orderly way, but on other occasions long delays were the norm, whether it was a matter of naming the new head of an Australian mission abroad or the more challenging task of delivering a significant policy statement. At other times the Prime Minister’s policy interventions were capricious and highly personalised, as highlighted by the shabby treatment meted out to the senior and highly regarded diplomat Hugh Borrowman over a prestigious diplomatic appointment. In the end, Rudd’s style of policy-making came to be deeply resented among the members of his government, and widely regarded among insiders and outsiders alike as corrupting established policy processes in Australia’s cabinet system of government.

A second weakness was that the widening agenda was erratically funded, betraying a constant struggle to establish clear policy priorities. The elementary proposition that a sound foreign policy requires means to be aligned closely to ends was something of a mystery to the Rudd government. Early on, as its foreign policy agenda quickly expanded, it was essentially under-funded, placing increasing strain on already limited resources, particularly in DFAT. But as the financial crisis began to bite, a government-wide need for restraint became obvious. In foreign affairs this was accomplished not by way of a pull-back or recalibration of Rudd’s ambitions, but rather by a series of increasingly erratic choices as to where the budgetary axe would have to fall. A very modest increase in funding for new staff in DFAT was quickly reversed, and while some diplomats were brought home from key posts overseas, a new (and increasingly expensive) mission was opened to the diplomatically insignificant Holy See.

In portfolio terms, DFAT suffered more than any other agency. Over two and a half years, efforts to arrest DFAT’s long-term decline were no better than feeble and feckless. This has left Australia, as the Lowy Institute has made clear, with a severe “diplomatic deficit”, which is having a profound impact on the nation’s ability to act effectively abroad. Rudd’s pre-election promise to make Australian diplomacy the “best in the world” was never redeemed. The failure was obvious, not just with regard to DFAT’s presence overseas, as noted above, it was also manifest in its increasingly marginal role in Canberra policy-making, and its growing preoccupation with managing its expanding, but again under-funded, consular responsibilities. Left unaddressed, this promises to hollow out our national diplomatic resources, and in an era where our Asian neighbours are growing in all dimensions of national power, and becoming increasingly accomplished diplomatically, this is short‑sighted national stupidity.

The Rudd government’s struggle with resource priorities went well beyond DFAT. Despite the new money expected to be saved through the Defence Department’s optimistic Strategic Reform Program, it is difficult to see how the highly ambitious military acquisition program outlined in the Rudd government’s Defence White Paper has any serious hope of being funded within existing defence budget parameters. Nor is it obvious that sufficient funds have been allocated to meet the challenges posed by home-grown terrorism, as outlined recently in the Counter-Terrorism White Paper. At the same time, the virtual collapse of the Rudd government’s border security strategy resulted in a massive blow-out of expenditure in the immigration portfolio.

There is a long list of other projects which were funded by the Rudd government under the rubric of national security, but fall well short of serving the national interest. Not the least of these is the manifestly irrelevant National Security College being established at Rudd’s old alma mater, the Australian National University, alongside the only marginally less dubious, and more expensive, national centre on China. In the context of a national budget under constant pressure from profligate spending in other areas, Rudd’s failure to impose fiscal discipline in an area close to his heart is perhaps not surprising. It highlights, however, one of his government’s chronic shortcomings: a conspicuous inability to establish the kind of clear policy priorities that are the essence of sound public administration.

The Rudd government was burdened by a third problem: a hyperactive instinct for the grand policy initiative. Ambitious endeavours are not necessarily fatal to sound foreign policy. Indeed in a world beset with turmoil, states able to offer creative policy leadership can be much in demand. The Howard government, for example, earned widespread international respect following its leadership of the East Timor intervention. Grand plans, however, can be risky and easily end in defeat and embarrassment if not carefully designed and artfully implemented.

Rudd’s foreign policy was something of a high-wire act in this regard. With his personal ambitions so at odds with Australia’s national interests and a rather manic style of decision-making yielding unpredictable outcomes, success was likely to be problematic. Persistence, creative policy-making and forceful diplomacy produced an impressive policy achievement with Australia helping to shape the G20 as a critical part of the post-crisis global financial architecture. But this was an isolated triumph, and rather than breaking new ground, built on a legacy of Australian backing for the G20 well established by the Coalition’s long‑serving Treasurer, Peter Costello. That Rudd’s political downfall came on the eve of the Toronto G20 summit, from which he became a notable absentee, was an unexpected irony of his prime ministership.

There where occasions when bad policy formulation and poor strategic implementation produced a far less satisfying outcome. One case was the ill-starred Asia-Pacific Community initiative. It was announced in March 2008, with little internal policy debate or preparation, no regional consultation, and only a hastily conceived plan of action. Not surprisingly the whole idea ran into immediate resistance from regional governments which were dubious about the proposal, but more importantly, deeply resentful of the way it had been launched. Emblematic of Rudd’s tendency for frenetic, poorly planned activity, he even failed to consult Australia’s closest ally, an initially lukewarm US government. Rudd’s acknowledgment, just days before his prime ministership imploded, that ASEAN would now take the issue forward, offered some cover for dropping the idea, but there can be little doubt that this was a forced retreat in the face of an overwhelming adverse regional response.

The Rudd government’s erratic course on climate change offers another telling example of a grand vision ending in an embarrassing failure. Well before his election as prime minister, Rudd was a rusted-on convert to the need for global action to reduce carbon emissions. After Bali in December 2007, however, he took his almost theological convictions on the subject into the international arena. His efforts to secure change were tireless, argued with zeal, passion and more than a little hyperbole, but most significantly out of all proportion to Australia’s responsibility for the problem and without any rational calculation of its ability to shift deeply entrenched international opposition to reform. Indeed, all the signs were that the international community was far from ready to reach a deal on climate. This seemed only to energise Rudd: he became a member of the climate change glitterati and a leader of the global caravan for reform, a role that led eventually to his appointment as a friend of the chair for the December 2009 Copenhagen conference.

The clarity of the prime ministerial vision animating this ambitious enterprise was underscored by the massive delegation Australia took to the conference and its torturous non-stop efforts to secure a deal. Extraordinarily, for someone who prides himself on being an astute analyst of China and a realist, Rudd seemed completely unprepared when China refused to shift from its longstanding negotiating position despite all entreaties. As the talks stalled, an intemperate and foul-mouthed condemnation of the Chinese stance not only lacked verbal elegance, it underscored Rudd’s dark mood and did nothing to advance the cause of Australia–China relations.

With the results of Copenhagen falling well short of many expectations, Rudd virtually dumped climate change from his agenda. Since then, global talks have continued around the Copenhagen Accord, but wisely, the Rudd and Gillard governments have assigned them a low priority. Whether this will continue remains to be seen. But as Rudd is drawn back to the climate change agenda as Foreign Minister, he might usefully ponder the high folly of his previous policy. Aside from the questionable value to Australia of any climate change deal that might have been secured, some attention could be directed to the massive financial and bureaucratic resources that were consumed in its pursuit. It would be of equal service to the nation, however, if there was some self-reflection on the errors of personal judgment and failures of policy planning that led to such a futile diplomatic enterprise being undertaken in the first place.

Rudd’s World

Rudd’s worldview is not easily articulated. Some analysts, not necessarily his adversaries, have argued that it lacks any kind of intellectual coherence and is driven largely by an obsessive managerialism that owes more to micro-management and opportunism than a well-thought-out body of ideas. Certainly, there are signs of this in his foreign policy, but his outlook is also global in conception, strategically sophisticated and, not surprisingly, distinctly Australian in its preoccupations. As is clear from his maiden speech to the House of Representatives, it has been informed by an eclectic range of influences that are part philosophical, part political, and part personal. While it reaches into the legal internationalist traditions of Labor governments past, it also contains a very evident “realist” streak, one that has been vividly exposed in his hardening attitude towards the rise of China.

But the predominant analytical stream in Rudd’s foreign policy thinking is internationalist. Rudd views international relations largely through the prism of globalisation, which has created what he calls a “joined-up world”. This creates a policy environment for Australia which is “increasingly complex and interconnected”. It is a world where the distinctions between foreign and domestic, global and local are largely disappearing.

Given these realities, the international community should aim to build a rule-based international order, one that serves as a foundation for security, promotes economic prosperity, facilitates political order, enables justice and democracy, and encourages conflict resolution. While great powers are an organic part of the international system and their interests alone should not shape the international order, the United States is in a unique position. It is manifestly a force for good in the world, a country whose power and purpose should be strongly supported, especially by its long time allies, such as Australia. At the same time, however, the international community has a compelling interest in closer co-operation as it gives all states a role in defining principles and in building global and regional institutions that can underpin the key values of order, security and prosperity.

Rudd is keenly aware that the global environment confronts Australia with numerous challenges, such as terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation and global financial market instability. But since these are common problems he judges that they are to be managed in conjunction with other states through international leadership. As a “creative middle power”, Rudd contends, Australia can lead and act “as an effective international citizen in enhancing the global and regional order”. Whatever this might mean, it leads Rudd into a driving belief in the value of co-operative regional and global mechanisms for problem-solving, and a commitment to institutions and structures (and their attendant processes) as tools of international management. Among other things, this underpinned Rudd’s belief in the value of the G20, a greater role for Australia at the United Nations, an Asia-Pacific Community and a global agreement on climate change.

Rudd’s extraordinary faith in international institutions and thus multilateralism is misplaced. As I argued in a paper for the Lowy Institute in 2008, not only do international organisational approaches to international order suffer from inherent limitations as instruments of foreign policy, but also for several decades multilateralism has been suffering from a deficit of legitimacy which has undermined its credibility and effectiveness. Certainly there has been something of a change in mood towards multilateralism since the election of the Obama administration in the United States, but the decline in credibility shows few signs of changing soon. International political history points inescapably to the reality that many of the really difficult issues of international relations, and particularly those caused by ugly and recalcitrant governments, are often well beyond the reach of multilateral solutions.

Not only does Rudd offers no apology for his belief in multilateralism, he appears to thrive on the endless processes it breeds. On more than one occasion he has said that multilateralism offsets the “brittleness in a foreign policy based only on bilateral relations”. This, however, is an unconvincing and rather perverse commentary on international affairs. Palmerston may have been correct when he observed that there are few enduring friendships in international relations, but strong bilateral partnerships are critical to a sound foreign policy and in fact facilitate effective multilateralism. Multilateral solutions to problems are almost always lowest-common-denominator solutions and not necessarily the most appropriate or effective. At the same time, if all problems are shared problems, for which there can be only commonly agreed solutions, some states’ national interests ineluctably become hostage to the policy preoccupations of other states. An allied danger, one to which the Rudd government seemed almost indifferent, is that multilateral negotiations risk becoming ends in themselves: valued more for the processes they facilitate than for the problems they are able to solve.

For all Rudd’s talk of Australia being part of a global order and thus having to face the same challenges as other states, a proposition not seriously in contention, his responsibility was (and remains) to advance Australia’s own national interests. These are distinctive and distinguishable from those of other states. While this requires the use of all appropriate means of policy, including at times multilateralism, it can only succeed if based on a secure foundation of strong bilateral ties and partnerships. This requires a diplomatic investment that Rudd seems unwilling or unable to make.

This preoccupation with multilateralism was more than instrumental; it reflected a deeply personalised assessment of Australia’s national interests. Like most prime ministers, Rudd has an intuitive understanding of Australia’s “national interests”, one he uses to sift options and set the direction of policy. His ubiquitous control of foreign policy decision-making meant that his sense of the national interest was rarely mediated through a policy process. The phrase “national interest” appeared time and time again in his foreign policy speeches and statements, but it was rarely defined or clearly conceptualised. It was used more as a talisman, to convey legitimacy and as a means of justifying a policy that was invariably of his making.

In taking this approach to the concept of the “national interest”, Rudd may have been doing no more or less than other prime ministers, but it was far from convincing. Being clear about the “national interest” is a first-order issue of government: the formulation and implementation of a sound and effective foreign policy is virtually impossible without it. Done comprehensively, the conceptualisation of interests serves to clarify the relative importance of international relationships, identifies the key national values and beliefs that underpin policy, establishes long- and short-term policy aims and objectives, communicates the rationale for policy decisions, and helps to set funding priorities. If Rudd had accepted the discipline of defining Australia’s “national interests”—perhaps in his National Security Statement or through the preparation of a new foreign affairs white paper, the focus of his foreign policy might have been very different and some of his policy decisions less quixotic. 

Managing Asia?

Nowhere was Rudd’s perplexing understanding of Australia’s national interests thrown into sharper focus than in his fraught diplomacy towards Asia. While his Asia Pacific Community idea presented one set of problems, they were compounded by a succession of difficulties in Australia’s bilateral relations with some of our most important regional strategic partners. Some bilateral relationships were strengthened, as was the case with the South Korea, but this was largely the exception. Others lurched from one destabilising crisis to another in a series of vexed and troubling events that did little to enhance Rudd’s own reputation for expertise on Asia and nothing to advance Australia’s interests in the region.

This was one of the great surprises of the Rudd prime ministership and presents a paradox that has yet to be adequately explained. For Rudd has had a deep, sincere and long-standing commitment to Australia engaging more fully and comprehensively with Asia. This need, he has argued, rests on the fact that the “changes and challenges in Asia will be great” and that for Australia our engagement is the “coincidence of several imperatives—geographic, economic and strategic”. In essence, Australia must engage with the countries of Asia, and this important national enterprise offers it many opportunities which need to be seized.

This is not an original insight into Australia’s relations, as the importance of the region has been part of a national consensus for several decades. But Rudd was too often accepted uncritically as the repository of all national wisdom on the matter in defiance of other knowledgeable voices, both within and outside government. It was as though his ability to speak Mandarin and his supposed experience and knowledge of Asia clad him in a suit of intellectual armour which defied penetration from any rational assessment of his performance.

Rudd’s prime ministership left Australia’s relations with key partners in Asia in a perturbed state and far more fragile than when the Howard government left office in November 2007. Rudd’s defenders argue that events frustrated his plans. Certainly the region is challenging, and of course unwelcome things happen in international affairs that governments often struggle to manage or deflect. But the problems that confronted Rudd’s foreign policy in Asia were almost all the result of self-inflicted wounds.

Last year’s irritants in our relations with Indonesia were a function of the government’s confused policies over border security; the lack of any serious progress towards a deeper strategic partnership with India was hostage to an irrational uranium export policy, misguided idealism on non-proliferation and a cowardly reluctance to confront Labor’s influential left wing; our rocky relations with Japan were a function of a series of ill-judged and maladroit policy initiatives that devalued the signal importance of the relationship to both countries; and the persistent challenges confronting Australia’s engagement with China reflected high and unfulfilled expectations of co-operation, clumsy management of some testing irritants to the relationship, and an inability to develop some workable policy convictions in relation to China’s rise and its importance to Australia’s future prosperity and security.

One of the themes common to these failures is the way the Rudd government failed to manage the domestic politics of its foreign policy. All governments confront this challenge, and it is particularly acute in an era of deeper globalisation where national values on matters such as human rights, and domestic opinion on issues such as whaling, intersect more sharply with wider international interests. While it is self-evident that national beliefs and values should closely inform Australia’s foreign relations, a balance needs to be struck. Governments that stray too far from the nation’s core beliefs in the conduct of their foreign policy risk their legitimacy. On the other hand, responding too readily to populist calls to arms, often through megaphone diplomacy, can threaten wider interests and important long-term international relationships. On key issues involving some our most important Asian neighbours, the Rudd government wrestled with the need for balance but conspicuously failed to achieve it. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that had the government developed a clearer sense of where the national interest lay in these key relationships, the many unnecessary stresses to which they were subject might have been avoided.

Rudd Redux and the Gillard Ascendancy

Rudd was a very active foreign policy Prime Minister, but his record of achievement was a modest one. While, in part, this was a reflection of a relatively short period in office, there were deep flaws in the way his government formulated and implemented its foreign policy. Now that the Gillard government has been returned to office, albeit by the narrowest of margins, and Rudd has been rehabilitated as Australia’s new Foreign Minister, he has an opportunity to build a more secure legacy. This will almost certainly prove a challenging undertaking.

Against the backdrop of the closest federal election in over half a century, the new government’s political priorities are unlikely to be focused on foreign affairs. Gillard’s preoccupation will be on maintaining the stability of her minority government around an agenda that will be primarily domestic. Rudd’s opportunities to accord foreign policy a higher priority more or less at will, as he was once wont to do, have largely disappeared. At the same time, a radical and entirely unpredictable element has emerged to the challenge of governing in Labor’s alliance with the Greens, where on foreign relations the two parties have profoundly disparate agendas.

Notwithstanding these realities, Rudd will almost certainly prove a wilful, self-important and opinionated minister, one that Gillard may find difficult to contain. This could spell trouble, since a co-operative relationship between prime minister and foreign minister is a necessary requirement for a stable and effective government. Given the recent history of their personal relations and the great disparities in their knowledge of foreign affairs, managing this relationship will not be easy and will demand enormous discipline on both sides. There is more than a slim chance that this almost Herculean task will prove beyond them, with serious consequences for both the longevity of the government and the effectiveness of Australia’s foreign policy.

The great unanswered question, however, is whether, given all the lead in its saddlebags, Labor can undertake the changes necessary to set Australia’s foreign relations on a fresh course, one that redresses the decision-making dysfunction and the errant policy priorities that are Rudd’s prime ministerial legacy. There are already signs in Canberra that the first is proving difficult, and as to policy direction, so far there is little indication that problems such as Australia’s fractured relations with key Asian countries are being repaired.

Beyond specific policy aims, Gillard and Rudd need urgently to find a way of returning Australia’s foreign relations to more secure foundations. It would be a useful start if henceforth we heard less of Rudd’s didacticism towards the international community and high-sounding rhetoric about Australia’s place in the world. But matters of style to one side and more critically, there is a need to invest the system of policy-making with greater procedural rigour and integrity, to ensure it more closely aligns financial means to policy ends, draws less capriciously on public opinion but more consciously on Australian’s values and ideals, and reflects a more assured understanding of Australia’s national interests. A better balance needs to be struck between the emphasis given to our bilateral relationships, especially in Asia, and the desire to be a “good international citizen” through multilateralism.

Kevin Rudd’s prime ministerial conduct of Australia’s international relations achieved some successes, but more often than was wise, prudent or can be overlooked, it ignored some of the elementary principles of a sound foreign policy. This left Australia pursuing grand plans on the world stage, which may have given us a high international profile, but all too often did little to secure our national interests into the future. In the end, this must be the test of any foreign policy worth the name.

Russell Trood is a Liberal/LNP Senator for Queensland and Deputy Chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee. Before his election to the Senate in 2004 he was Associate Professor of International Relations at Griffith University.