Kevin Rudd may well have underperformed in areas of foreign policy, but he still deserves at least a B+ mark, based on one achievement alone.
The posts by Sam and Malcolm, plus Rowan Callick's feature on Rudd's diplomacy, set me to musing on a score sheet or report card. To make it easy, the categories are decidedly fuzzy. The metaphor employed is a motoring one — the Top Gear version of how the Prime Minister is driving policy.
Score The Kevin as having two relationships that are powering along, even accelerating (South Korea and the US), one relationship that is ticking over relatively smoothly despite some big bumps on the road (Indonesia), but three that are running rough, perhaps even going backwards (China, Japan and India).
Before leaping into this mix of bilaterals, consider one major multilateral creation that must be entered in any report card. Rudd's role in helping topple the old G7/G8 to make the G20 pre-eminent is a foreign policy win of note. As with most international achievements, this was a team effort with lots of captains happy to claim credit.
Rudd will get little electoral credit for the diligent argument and quiet passion (and constant phone diplomacy) he brought to promoting the G20. In the same way, Peter Costello will never get much glory for his similar nurturing and building work when the G20 was being created at Finance Minister level. For politicians, the creed that no good deed goes unpunished has the ring of historical fact.
Unfortunately for Rudd, when the voters think of his multilateral work, the first images to come to mind will probably include Copenhagen and snow. Global warming may trump the G20.
The G20, though, looks like a good approximation of a 21st century concert of powers. That doesn't mean Rudd gets to play Castlereagh or Metternich. But the Prime Minister achieves high marks for having made full use of a lovely crisis. He was one of the important handmaidens present at the creation. So the G20 success, on its own, ensures that Rudd is entitled to a healthy pass mark on his foreign policy report card.
Rudd has the vices of his virtues, so his personal effort on the G20 offers some insights into the ups and downs of his handling of the key bilaterals.
You'll notice that so far in this meditation, the name of the Foreign Minister has not been mentioned. The Cabinet engine has been running in a most unusual way, notably in foreign policy. Back in July, I wrote a three-part series arguing that Rudd runs a dysfunctional ministry because of the way the Prime Minister both commands and constrains his ministers.
Without going over all that ground, it is enough to make the obvious point that Rudd is the man driving the car, talking on the phone, issuing orders to the other passengers, reading the map, pointing out passing landmarks and arguing about the destination (plus trying to do the under-the-bonnet tinkering as well).
Having done the report card, I am now being nagged by a ghost from five decades ago. The ghost has grizzled wire-like hair and is waving his hands in manic fashion to match his rapid-fire delivery. I picture him in black-and-white, because that was the colour of TV pictures back then. The ghost is Professor Julius Sumner Miller, and the question he is shouting is the title of the wonderful science shows he did for the ABC: why is it so?
Why are only two of the key bilaterals running smoothly, but three running rough? What is wrong with The Kevin's driving? Or is it the fault of the other drivers on the road? These are intriguing questions. Or as the Professor would say: 'He who is not stirred by the beauty of it is already dead!'
Let us investigate. I will ponder the mixed state of the bilaterals and get back to you with more findings in the next column.
Photo by Flickr user London Summit, used under a Creative Commons license.