Tuesday, December 7, 2010


This column was hard to write. I wanted to try and incorporate two contrasting ideas: (1) that the Wikileaks haven't really told us anything we don't already know, but also (2) that now they're public knowledge countries will act appropriately.

This reveals two further consequences. Rudd's relationship with China is now finished and he will have to be moved from the Foreign Minister's job before this can be restored.

The third issue is why did he say what he did? What prompted his remarks? I've tried to answer these questions below:


The foreign diplomat shrugged slightly. "The leaked cables don't actually tell us very much at all," he sniffed. "It's all low-grade stuff," he continued. "Indeed, the most revealing detail is the poor quality of the writing and the unnecessary material that's incorporated in the documents."

That's half right. Diplomats -- like journalists -- pride themselves on the accuracy of their observations; the cogency of their analysis; the purity of their composition. No envoy ever wants to admit that cables coming back from another mission (particularly, especially, an American one) might display more insight than their own. But ask yourself: which of the wiki-leaks have stood out and the answer is obvious. It's been the cables that have read like the reports of a foreign correspondent, the ones that captured the mood of a moment, or personality, with the discreet revelation of a bizarre detail. These have provided amusing reading. This might explain why the US State Department was the fourth most sought after employer in America last year. It's also easy to understand why the diplomats who are capable of such writing show the sort of flair and intelligence that others might envy.

But not every foreign service operates in this way and context is everything when you're telling a joke. Everything dumped so far has been essentially low-level stuff. There are no surprises, but that doesn't mean it's appreciated or admired. The State Department's total budget is US $16.389 billion. Most of the information provided back to Washington would have been readily available to readers for the cost of a subscription to The Economist at less than a dollar a day.

For these reasons it's easy to blow away, like flim-flam, the majority of the revelations. All they do is confirm details that have long been suspected. Nevertheless, in Kevin Rudd's case the detailed confirmation of what's long been suspected about his attitude to Beijing is disastrous. It has administered the final crippling blow to both his personal ambition to serve on the UN Security Council as well as his ability to negotiate with Beijing. Rudd's detailed and unrefuted comments that China was both "paranoid" and "sub-rational", together with his bizarre idea that the US could "deploy force if everything goes wrong" will prohibit any resumption of the close relationship the rising dragon once offered him.

Beijing will take time to work out exactly where this leaves its friendship with Australia. The individual connection with Rudd has been stretched taut for a long time. Now they've snapped and he will be punished. It may take some time before the necessary offering is proffered, but there will be blood. China won't be prepared to deal seriously with someone who talks openly to Hillary Clinton the way Rudd did. The Chinese leadership had, sometimes unwillingly, nevertheless extended the benefit of the doubt to the Australian PM when he was in office. Now there is no need to maintain the varnish of nicety. Rudd will be fair game for everyone, because the American cable has revealed that his own personal opinions are not the same ones that he's been enunciating publicly. Nor are they ones that our government endorses. This one, critical cable reveals that, when he was Prime Minister, Rudd felt bold enough to urge the US to help push the emerging dragon back in its box while at the same time he was pretending to welcome China's rise. His duplicity will not be ignored by Beijing.

Sincerity is the last in the series of "five constant virtues" that are celebrated by the Chinese. In its written form the word's meaning is crystal clear. The ideograph is made up of the character for "man" juxtaposed to that for "words". In the past, westerners portrayed Orientals as the ones possessing the attributes of falsehood and insincerity. In one shattering blow that paradigm has been, utterly and destructively, reversed.

Not that this was a surprise. Despite all the hype, there’s nothing in these cables that’s really new – the real trouble is it confirms just what everyone had always suspected. A newspaper columnist might be able to get away with describing President Hu Jintao as "no Jiang Zemin” but it's different when a Foreign Minister throws away such a dismissive remark. It's the sort of thing that any diplomat knows to avoid – unless, of course, they're on an ego-trip of self-aggrandisement and living in a world of their own. Even if correct, these are not the insights that an Australian politician should be vouchsafing to the ambassador of a foreign power. Which leads, inevitably, to the real question lying at the root of the issue. Just why did Rudd make these comments, unsolicited, to the Americans? The answer reveals a great deal about Rudd's personality and its foibles.

Rudd was only a mid-ranking diplomat when he served in Beijing. He then exited that world and became Wayne Goss's chief-of-staff before becoming an MP. As a public servant he'd learned how to analyse the world but this was never going to be enough for the ambitious young man. That's why he became a politician. He’s always sought the limelight, together with the opportunity this has provided him with to define the world. He needs to be listened to and treated seriously. That's fair enough, but his bid for the approval of others has led him beyond the bounds of propriety.

Rudd was searching for power on a bigger stage. It was about ego. This is the only way to explain his comments to Clinton in March last year when, egged on by the US Secretary and describing himself as a "brutal realist", Rudd was even prepared to urge America to consider using force against China. Just think about what that means. Deploying force! Perhaps Rudd had become confused and thought he was back in the year 1874, when a US gunboat sailed nearly 2000 km up the Yangtze River. Ask yourself how any sensible person could think for a moment of speaking this way, even in a closed room that was hermetically sealed off from the wider world, let alone an insecure meeting with another politician. It seems unlikely China will forget. It won’t affect Australia’s relationship with the superpower, but it will affect Rudd’s. Count on it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Nick. It's about time someone pointed out the obvious about Rudd and China. He has managed to annoy the Great Dragon to no good effect several times before this. Remember how he got himself un-invited to an exclusive preview to the Water Cube prior to the Olympics? It was for precisely the same kind of bumptious, naive, and gratuitously offensive remarks. Given the quality of diplomatic representation that China has provided to Australia, one would think that we can do better than a smarmy ignoramus like our Kevin to handle our relations with the hand that feeds us.