Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has just received the rare gift that all politicians cherish: a second chance. Named foreign minister by Prime Minister Julia Gillard Saturday, Mr. Rudd will regain both domestic political standing and an expanded international role. That may be good for his career, but may not be for Australia or its neighbors. As far as Asia is concerned, Mr. Rudd is damaged goods from his time as prime minister and Australian diplomats are still mopping up his mistakes in the region.
Mr. Rudd’s track record in foreign policy is decidedly mixed. His most notable success as prime minister was to help establish the Group of 20 as a pre-eminent global forum and to secure Australia a prominent voice in it. Mr. Rudd also didn’t lack big ideas to ramp up Australia’s “middle-power” activism in the region. He floated the idea of a new body, called the Asia-Pacific Community, as a way to transform existing multilateral institutions.
Along the way, however, Mr. Rudd alienated Australia’s most important regional democratic allies. On a bilateral level, he initially courted China rather than continue the previous administration’s focus on Japan and India. The deterioration in relations was exacerbated by an early decision to reverse plans to sell uranium to India and his subsequent threat to take Japan to the International Court of Justice over its whaling practices.
The fallout wasn’t restricted to Asia’s big powers. Mr. Rudd didn’t consult the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations before floating his idea of an Asia Pacific Community. That blunder antagonized long-standing partners such as Singapore and burgeoning ones such as Indonesia.
Ultimately, pandering to China didn’t pay off either. Beijing’s mandarins took Mr. Rudd’s advances as a sign that Canberra was moving closer to its political sphere of influence. When Mr. Rudd pushed back, China responded by locking up Rio Tinto executive and Australian citizen Stern Hu in Shanghai without due process; denouncing Australia’s defense white paper, which identified China as a potential security threat; and criticizing Australia’s apparently unwelcome attitude to Chinese foreign direct investment. Chinese-Australian relations haven’t been this fraught since the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis.
The question now is whether Mr. Rudd has learned from his mistakes and will be a team player, or whether he plans to use his profile and foreign-policy experience to rebuild his leadership credentials for another tilt at prime minister. He will, from the start, be constrained by the Labor Party’s slim parliamentary majority, which was cobbled together with the Green Party and independent members.
But Mr. Rudd may ironically benefit from serving under a greatly diminished prime minister. Ms. Gillard and Labor’s power brokers underestimated the backlash from voters when they unseated Mr. Rudd from office in June, two months before the general election. Mr. Rudd’s home state of Queensland rallied to his cause, and Ms. Gillard was humiliatingly forced to publicly seek Mr. Rudd’s “endorsement” during the campaign. She reportedly struck a deal in which Mr. Rudd would receive the foreign affairs portfolio in any future Gillard government. Despite honoring the deal, the personal relationship between the prime minister and her foreign minister is close to irretrievably broken.
That may give Mr. Rudd a freer hand than usual to craft foreign policy on his own—something he is wont to do anyway. His background as a Mandarin speaking diplomat is unique in Australian politics. As prime minister, Mr. Rudd treated foreign affairs as his own personal domain. Ms. Gillard will have a hard time denying him that right, given her diminished political capital and lack of foreign-policy expertise or interest.
Mr. Rudd’s determination is redoubtable and his capacity for hard work is legendary. Australia could be witnessing the emergence of its most ambitious and energetic foreign minister since Gareth Evans held the post from 1988 to 1996. But emboldened by the circumstances of his political return, Mr. Rudd’s ambition for higher office at home may lead him to commit the same impetuous personal and policy mistakes that help bring him down as prime minister.