Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Rudd trip repairing Australia's damaged reputation

  • 11 April 2008

The Rudd Government has not yet shown a full hand on how it wants to balance its three major international relationships — with China, the US, and the UN. But Rudd's visit to China is making things clearer.

This visit is proceeding brilliantly. To raise the subject of Tibet on the first day, during a meeting with students at China's top university (where the democracy movement that led to Tiananmen Square was born), and to use the unprovocative words he used, was a master stroke. He raised Tibet in a respectful way, and as a human rights matter internal to China. His words to journalists regarding the Olympic torch relay were similarly careful.

On trade relations, he affirmed national interest and economic interest in terms Chinese political and business leaders will understand and respect.

So far he has made no self-aggrandising claims of strategic mediation between China and the US. Such claims play better in Australia than China, where leaders look at outcomes rather than boasts.

In his earlier US visit, Rudd struck the right protocol notes. No serious business can be done with the Bush administration during its last months. Rudd observed the right courtesies as a visiting leader, to the President and to the two Democratic contenders. He positioned Australia well to initiate substantive policy dialogue with an incoming administration led by Obama, Clinton, or McCain. One could ask for no more, for now.

Finally, the United Nations. Rudd met the Secretary-General and flagged his determination to make Australia a better international citizen. Good, but I suspect that to announce Australia's interest in a Security Council candidacy for 2012 was to show his hand too soon.

I don't think Rudd — immersed in domestic politics these past ten years — understands how much Australia put the UN General Assembly offside under John Howard's rule. DFAT officials won't tell him just how bad it is.

Security Council rotating seats are decided by the global membership, most of whom are developing countries. Australia could not afford to bribe these countries to support us (nor, ethically, should we try). We have to persuade them we merit a turn. And it will take more than four years to undo the damage Howard did our reputation in the UN. Still-fresh images of Australia voting with UN pariahs, the US and Israel and a few bought failed states, and of Australian delegates taking orders