All politics is local. It’s a cliché but one that never goes out of style. Malcolm Turnbull’s unwillingness to endorse Kevin Rudd for the world’s top diplomatic post, the secretary-general of the United Nations, reminds us of that timeless wisdom.
Given a choice between looking churlish on the international stage or staring down some of the recalcitrants in his own party, Turnbull took the politically less-painful option.
There were lots of all-too-plausible reasons for not supporting Rudd’s undiminished ambitions. Kristina Keneally’s widely repeated description of Rudd as a “psychopathic narcissist” was all the more powerful coming from a fellow former Labor comrade.
More predictably, Eric Abetz suggested Rudd was a “narcissist, a micromanager, an impulsive control freak” – oh, yes, “a psychopath”, too.
With character references like this it’s no surprise that his nomination was anything but a slam-dunk. On the contrary, many across the political spectrum actively loathe Rudd for the way he operated, his alleged mismanagement of the country, his backstabbing, white-anting and his temperament. And yet Julie Bishop was arguably right to suggest that he should have been supported.
Why? First, Australia’s never had anyone to put forward for this sort of position since the late H.V. “Doc” Evatt, who was also judged to be a little eccentric, not to say two resolutions short of a treaty, as I believe they say in diplomatic circles.
It’s not likely another suitable candidate is going to come along soon to judge by the current crop of politicians, who are distinguished primarily by their unpopularity with the public.
A second reason for supporting Rudd was that it’s not a good look for a country if it doesn’t support an eligible candidate. If he was judged good enough to run the country, surely we ought to support his post-politics career?
Third, what harm could he do? As many sceptics in the Coalition and elsewhere never tire of pointing out, the United Nations never actually does anything other than hold endless meetings of unrepresentative megalomaniacs at the public expense, right? Kevin might fit right in and it would keep him out of mischief at home.
Fourth, he was actually very unlikely to get the job anyway. There are lots of other plausible candidates with two apparently indispensable qualifications: they are either from Eastern Europe, or women, or both.
The smart money says it’s time for one of the above, so Kevin would have had only the slimmest of chances as a compromise candidate. But if Boris Johnson can become Britain’s foreign minister, I guess anything is possible.
In Rudd’s defence he actually does have some real pluses that might have made him a pretty decent candidate, the vitriol from our political class notwithstanding. At the very least, he might have made more of an impression that the incumbent who got the job primarily because he wasn’t actually likely to do much to offend any of the permanent members of the Security Council.
Rudd, on the other hand, does know how to make an impact – whether you like the results or not. And he is very smart and alert to the big ideas and issues of our time. Whether he could do anything about them is another matter.
Whether anyone can do anything about them is the real issue. There’s one thing we can be pretty confident about, though: another bland technocrat probably won’t.
For all its well-known endlessly repeated shortcomings, the UN remains one of the few bits of even modestly effective institutional architecture we have. Getting any sort of co-operation between countries on any issue is a massive challenge. The surprise is that we ever do. Without some energetic figurehead with a few ideas, though, even modest progress is unlikely to happen.
We have to resign ourselves that people who aspire to positions of power and authority may well be prone to megalomania and delusions of grandeur. It goes with the territory, as they say. The question is whether they do more good than harm while they’re in office.
Kevin’s got a mixed record, no doubt. But it might have been interesting to see an Australian trying to set the international agenda for a change, rather than being the passive recipient of forces seemingly beyond our control.
Authors: Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia