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Rudd trip repairing Australia's damaged reputation


Kevin Rudd in China 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 from US delegates in corridors, behind the meeting rooms and near the toilets, will not be quickly forgotten.

Australia offended the majority UN membership by the way we treated refugees in detention, by pushing refugee boats away, by anti-Muslim harassment at home, by our involvement in the Iraq invasion, by our complicity in Guantanamo renditions and torture at Abu Ghraib. We still look like a deputy sheriff in US-provoked wars.

Our media bland-out such images, but I fear they are still stark in the UN Members' Lounge. We should have waited a year to announce the Security Council bid — to get our combat troops out of Iraq, to get runs on the board in terms of our human rights, international law, and post-Kyoto votes and statements in UN fora.

Australia is now on probation at the UN. Unwise statements at home by Labor ministers on Australian values, counter-terrorism, defence, border security and indigenous rights could reawaken antipathies to us. We also require a visible change in DFAT culture, which may involve a change in DFAT's Senior Executive to pro-multilateralist new faces.

When I was in the Australian UN delegation in 1973-75, we prided ourselves on the fact that, despite our ANZUS security ties, we were not US satellites at the UN. Under both Whitlam and Fraser, we were proudly part of mainstream UN culture. We pitied our forlorn US colleagues for not being so. We would never dream of taking voting instructions from them.

Rudd needs to know that Australia has a big repair job to do at the UN, and on relevant policies at home, if we want to get onto the UN Security Council.

'Foreign policy tip: stop sucking up to the US' (Crikey)

Tony KevinTony Kevin retired from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1998, after a 30-year public service career in DFAT and Prime Minister's Department. He was Australia's ambassador to Poland (1991–94) and Cambodia (1994–97).




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Existing comments

Thanks Tony. Appreciated your comments on the UN. I wasn't aware our "conga line of suckholes" had grown so long under Howard. Maybe under Rudd, with a lot of hard work, pride in being Australian will be easier to wear.

Trevor Melksham | 10 April 2008  

Thank you for such a succinct summary of our PM's overseas trip, and thank God he is doing so much to repair the damage done by the previous administration. May he continue in the right direction.

Christine Slattery | 10 April 2008  

12 months ago the approach of the Howard Government towards social justice issues made me feel ashamed to be an Australian citizen. Today's government policies have restored one's national pride.

David Dyer | 10 April 2008  

Growing up in the late 1940s I was proud that we had played a major role in setting up the UN. Working in Australia in the 1950s & 1960s I became uneasy at how we conformed to the wishes of the UK and then the USA. Watching my students dying in Vietnam led me to migrate to Canada. Felt the same way after my return on the 1990s. Thank you Kevin and Kevin, we are back on the right track.

jock | 11 April 2008  

When Andrew Jackson reminded the people that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, he was referring to our being free of the "leadership" of the likes of Jay Dubya.

David Arthur | 11 April 2008  

Well said Tony.

Jim Jones | 12 April 2008  

it was a real joy to read such an affirming article after so many years of cringing whenever i read about our international image. i do hope that Rudd notes the need for 'softly, softly' in this remaking of our image with the UN

barbara overbury | 12 April 2008  

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