More invaluable insights into how diplomacy really works. Egos and bowing to the US and Israel. That’s quite a vision for world peace and security (and what’s a few thousand civilians killed by our cluster bombs?)
Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is an abrasive, impulsive ”control freak” who presided over a series of foreign policy blunders during his time as prime minister, according to secret United States diplomatic cables.
The scathing assessment – detailed in messages sent by the US embassy in Canberra to Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton over several years – are among hundreds of US State Department cables relating to Australia obtained by WikiLeaks and made available exclusively to The Age.
”Rudd … undoubtedly believes that with his intellect, his six years as a diplomat in the 1980s and his five years as shadow foreign minister, he has the background and the ability to direct Australia’s foreign policy. His performance so far, however, demonstrates that he does not have the staff or the experience to do the job properly,” the embassy bluntly observed in November 2009.Advertisement: Story continues below
The cables show how initially favourable American impressions of Mr Rudd, as ”a safe pair of hands”, were quickly replaced by sharp criticism of his micromanagement and mishandling of diplomacy as he focused on photo and media opportunities.
In a December 2008 review of the first year of the Rudd government, US ambassador Robert McCallum characterised its performance as ”generally competent” and noted Mr Rudd was ”focused on developing good relations with the incoming US administration [of President Barack Obama], and is eager to be seen as a major global player”.
Despite this, what were described as ”Rudd’s foreign policy mistakes” formed the centrepiece of the ambassador’s evaluation. Mr McCallum thought the prime minister’s diplomatic ”missteps” largely arose from his propensity to make ”snap announcements without consulting other countries or within the Australian government”.
According to the embassy, the government’s ”significant blunders” began when then foreign minister Stephen Smith announced in February 2008 that Australia would not support strategic dialogue between Australia, the US, Japan and India out of deference to China. ”This was done without advance consultation and at a joint press availability with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi,” Mr McCallum wrote.
Mr Rudd’s June 2008 speech announcing that he would push for the creation of an Asia-Pacific Community loosely based on the European Union was cited as a further example of a major initiative undertaken ”without advance consultation with either other countries (including South-East Asian nations, leading Singaporean officials to label the idea dead on arrival) or within the Australian government (including with his proposed special envoy to promote the concept, veteran diplomat Richard Woolcott)”.
Similarly Mr Rudd’s establishment of an international commission on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation was ”rolled out … during a photo-op heavy trip to Japan … His Japanese hosts were given insufficient advance notice and refused a request for a joint announcement”.
The US embassy noted that Mr Rudd did not consult any of the five nuclear weapons states on the United Nations Security Council and that Russia had lodged a formal protest. One of Mr Rudd’s staff gave the US embassy a few hours’ advance notice of the announcement ”but without details”.
The cables also refer to ”control freak” tendencies and ”persistent criticism from senior civil servants, journalists and parliamentarians that Rudd is a micro-manager obsessed with managing the media cycle rather than engaging in collaborative decision-making”.
Eleven months later, in November 2009, the embassy delivered another sharp assessment that Mr Rudd dominated foreign policy decision-making, ”leaving his foreign minister to perform mundane, ceremonial duties and relegating the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to a backwater”.
”Other foreign diplomats, in private conversations with us, have noted how much DFAT seemed to be out of the loop,” US Charge d’Affaires Dan Clune reported. ”The Israeli ambassador [Yuval Rotem] told us that senior DFAT officials are frank in asking him what PM Rudd is up to and admit that they are out of the loop.” Mr Clune added that morale within DFAT had ”plummeted, according to our contacts inside as well as outside the department”.
The embassy also assigned blame for DFAT’s decline to the weakness of Mr Smith, who was dismissed as being ”on vacation”.
”Surprised by his appointment as foreign minister, Smith has been very tentative in asserting himself within the government,” Mr Clune wrote. ”DFAT contacts lamented that Smith took a very legalistic approach to making decisions, demanding very detailed and time-consuming analysis by the department and using the quest for more information to defer making decisions.”
David Pearl, a Treasury official who served on Mr Smith’s staff in 2004, told American diplomats that the foreign minister was ”very smart, but intimidated both by the foreign policy issues themselves and the knowledge that PM Rudd is following them so closely”.
Former DFAT first assistant secretary for north Asia, Peter Baxter, lamented to embassy officers that ”Smith’s desire to avoid overruling DFAT recommendations meant that he often delayed decisions to the point that the PM’s office stepped in and took over”.
The US embassy further recounted that after Israel initiated its military offensive in Gaza in December 2008, Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem contacted Mr Smith at his home in Perth to ask for Australia’s public support. Despite the obvious diplomatic and political sensitivity of the issue, ”Rotem told [the embassy] that Smith’s response was that he was on vacation, and that the ambassador needed to contact deputy prime minister Gillard, who was acting prime minister and foreign minister at the time.”
Paradoxically, Mr Rudd’s determination to dominate the foreign policy agenda diminished the influence of his own department, with one DFAT assistant secretary explaining to the embassy that the foreign policy staff of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) were ”overwhelmed supporting Rudd’s foreign policy activities, particularly his travel, which has reduced its ability to push its own agenda”.
In concluding his assessment, Mr Clune suggested that Mr Rudd’s ”haphazard, overly secretive decision-making process” would continue to generate foreign policy problems.
Seven months later, Mr Rudd lost the prime ministership, but he remains very much in charge of Australia’s diplomacy.