WEEKEND READ: Rudd looks outward

Kevin Rudd's trip to United States, Europe and China will demonstrate Australia's desire to take a more active role in global affairs.


Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is currently on an 18-day visit to the United States, Europe and China. Ahead of his travels, Rudd spoke in Sydney on March 26 at the East Asia Forum, an event organized by the Australian National University. In his speech, Rudd said the world could expect to see "an increasingly activist Australian international policy” over the coming years. He added that foreign political, economic and security policy should be seen as an extension of Australia’s domestic national interests, not "some sort of policy exotica".

Australia is not alone among middle powers in promising a more active foreign policy as the world adjusts to the post-post-Cold War order.

Rudd’s travels will take him to Washington and New York to meet with US President George W. Bush, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, World Bank President Robert Zoellick, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, and members of the US administration and Congress. In London, Rudd will meet government and economic officials, and he will travel to Brussels, Belgium, for the NATO summit. And in China, Rudd will meet with government and economic officials.

Rudd has come under some criticism at home for so quickly taking such an extensive foreign trip rather than focusing on domestic issues. To counter this, he has emphasized that for Australia to preserve its national interests – from economic security to counter-terrorism to issues related to climate change – Canberra cannot simply react to world events, but must try where possible to influence them. He added that decisions in Washington, London and Beijing "directly shape the global financial environment and impact on Australia’s economic future.” Rudd further justified his early focus on foreign policy issues with a complaint that Australia has been "too quiet for too long” in international forums, a subtle dig at what was perceived as the mostly bilateral activism of his predecessor, who many thought linked Australia’s foreign policy to that of the United States.

As to just what role Australia will play, Rudd highlighted Canberra’s work on the Kyoto accords, its rapid deployment to East Timor and its involvement in shaping security and political stability among Pacific island nations. While these are old issues, Rudd is suggesting Australia’s future "activist” policy will be multifaceted and will involve political, economic and military tools. Rudd is not alone among leaders of major economic or political powers in the Asia-Pacific region in seeking a more active global role to secure their own national interests. China, South Korea and Japan are all pursuing a similar policy, focusing on multilateral institutions and economic and political diplomacy to help shape the international environment in a way more beneficial to their own interests.

And this phenomenon is not isolated to the Asia-Pacific region. The world is seeking equilibrium. The end of the Cold War left the world dealing with a single global power, the United States. In the 1990s, amid the euphoria of a new "globalised” era, there was an expectation that nationalism and national self-interest would be replaced by international economic cooperation. This was not a very realistic way to look at the world, and quickly proved a false hope. As the United States continues to focus on the US-jihadist war, other countries are seeking ways to secure their own national interests and perhaps balance – or at least adapt to – the existence of a single global power.

For countries such as Australia, South Korea and Japan, this newfound interest in global activism is in part in association with the United States, which has called on its allies to be more active and thus reduce the burden on the United States. For others, such as Russia and China, the more active role is a way to insulate themselves from US power. But whatever the motive, each is seeking a hand in shaping the post-post-Cold War international system.

Like the imperialist era’s global competition for resources, or the restructuring of the balance of global power at the end of World War II, there is another rush to gain advantage and security in taking an active role in shaping the new system. And, as in the past, there will be shifting alliances, with the middle powers at times co-operating and at times competing as they seek to secure their own national interests.

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