For most politicians, becoming their country’s foreign minister would represent a pinnacle. For Kevin Rudd, 54, it was a demotion. Before assuming the role in September 2010, he was Australia’s 26th prime minister, having led the Labor party to victory in December 2007. Faced by falling opinion polls and dwindling support from his own party, he resigned the office in June 2010 and was replaced by his deputy, Julia Gillard.
Before entering politics in the late 1980s, Rudd had worked in Australia’s foreign service, posted at embassies in Stockholm and Beijing – his fluent Mandarin was probably more of an advantage at the latter. As prime minister and foreign minister, he has been enthusiastic about Australian engagement with Asia – a contrast to the prime minister he replaced, long-serving conservative John Howard, who often appeared to wish that Australia bordered Surrey or Texas.
Rudd may not be foreign minister for long. His successor as prime minister has herself struggled in the polls, and persistent rumours suggest that Rudd may yet try to get his old job back.
Monocle: You recently gave a speech to the North Atlantic Council of Nato, in which you chided EU nations for their “stagnant” defence spending. Why is it Australia’s place to make that observation?
Kevin Rudd: It’s fine for the EU to make proclamations on foreign policy but you’ve got to have the military power to deliver on them. When they’re running average defence expenditures of less than 0.9 per cent of gross national income, that becomes a problem. If [Australia] were a Nato country, we’d be the fourth or fifth largest military spender in Europe.
M: In your first speech to parliament, in 1998, while your party was in opposition, you criticised the approach to Asia taken by John Howard, your predecessor as prime minister. You said “the repair work will probably take a decade.” How is that going?
KR: I gave that speech in 1998. We were elected in December 2007 – so that left about three months to fix it up to meet the decade mark. For the Howard government, their primary point of reference was the Anglosphere – the US and UK. We have a different view. How we’re perceived now is a question for the world, but they would probably say that we have invested enormous energy in getting the institutions of Asia to work effectively.
M: In that speech to Nato in January, you also said that Asia and Australia don’t have “common foundations derived from a common set of values. Nor therefore do we necessarily have a common set of bearings for the future.” How do you overcome that?
KR: The concept of Asia as a uniform cultural entity, let alone a political entity, is not valid. In Europe, there’s a common tradition of Judeo-Christianity. We don’t share that. What is different about [Australia] is that we are proudly a product of the western tradition but we regard that as being no different to bringing Confucian mores, or South-East Asian Islam, or Indian Hinduism, into the mix. It requires creative diplomacy in order to get on.
M: What have you learnt about China that might get missed by people who haven’t lived there and don’t speak the language? Do you ever cringe at mistakes made by other countries engaging with Beijing?
KR: There are two polarities which many people assume are the only options for dealing with China. One is conflict and containment, the other is kowtow and compliance. A thorough analysis of Chinese interests and values enables you to prosecute a third way. So I would cringe when anyone goes into either containment or kowtow mode. I’ll also say that after at least half a millennium of dealing with “barbarians” from the West, China’s leaders are contemptuous of weakness. They respect consistency.
M: Your predecessor as Labor prime minister, Paul Keating, was also enthusiastic about engagement with Asia, but often seemed exasperated by the reluctance of the Australian electorate. Is that still a factor?
KR: Less and less, because this concept of Asia is not a civilisational definition, it’s a geographical term. And it’s where we happen to be. I think there is a greater recognition that this is where our destiny lies. Australians are comfortable with diversity. Apart from anything else, it has liberated us from the tyranny of English food.
M: You’re lobbying for Australia to land one of the non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council. What’s Australia’s pitch?
KR: Australia is a founding member of the UN and until the 1980s we were on the Security Council every decade. Now we haven’t been on it for 25 years, most of which was during the Howard administration because I think they figured if they stuck their hands up, they’d lose. But 2013 and 2014 are going to be very big years for the transition in Afghanistan, where we have been active for 10 years. Similarly, it will be the time we look at the future of the unsc mandate for Timor-Leste, in our part of the world.
M: Is having been prime minister an advantage in being foreign minister?
KR: It gives you a wider view of the space in which you’re operating. You don’t regard it as alien to the diplomatic negotiation that there are these things called domestic factors, because you’ve had to wrestle these crocodiles yourself.
M: Will we still be correct in describing you as foreign minister by the time this story appears?
KR: I’m a happy little Vegemiter being the foreign minister of Australia.