Kevin Rudd wanted to take over from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when he steps down in December. While the reason for rejecting Rudd’s nomination by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is not known, many feel his expertise on China would have given him a unique position at the UN as the former leader of a country sandwiched between competing relationships with the U.S. and China.
MELBOURNE – Australia’s conservative government has decided against nominating Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister known for his expertise on China and Asia, to become the next UN Secretary General, after the issue spilt the Cabinet.
Speaking to reporters in Sydney on Friday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he reached the decision after considering whether Rudd was suited to the job, but declined to elaborate on how he made the call.
“My judgment is that Mr Rudd is not, and I’ve explained to him the reasons why,” Turnbull said, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.
Turnbull had indicated he would personally decide whether to give the green light to Rudd’s bid after a Cabinet meeting the previous day failed to reach a consensus.
Rudd, a China specialist who was prime minister twice between 2007 and 2013 as leader of the rival Labor Party, formally requested the nomination last month after years of speculation that he wanted to take over from Ban Ki-moon when he steps down in December.
Rudd’s bid exposed a divide in the Liberal Party-National Party coalition between MPs insisting he was not fit for the job and those arguing for the national interest to be put ahead of partisan politics.
“It’s a small country, it needs to use whatever levers it has,” Euan Graham, director of international security at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, told Asia Times of the prospect of an Australian taking the helm of the UN.
While Rudd would have been the first of his countrymen to take the job if successful against a dozen other candidates, high-profile members of the government including Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Treasurer Scott Morrison opposed his nomination.
One of the most stinging attacks, however, came from ostensibly friendly territory. Former Labor premier for New South Wales, Kristina Keneally, blasted the former prime minister as a “psychopathic narcissist” who would be less suited to the role than her labrador.
But sitting Labor figures reacted angrily to the prime minister’s announcement, with one frontbencher using social media to succinctly write, “Turnbull. Pathetic.”
Rudd was the only prospective candidate from Australia, and a dozen other figures, including former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clarke and Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vesna Pusić, will now vie for the top UN job.
While Rudd left office in 2013 widely disliked by the Australian public, his expertise on China would have given him a unique position at the UN as the former leader of a country sandwiched between competing relationships with the U.S. and China.
While Australia maintains a Cold War-era military alliance with the U.S., it does the most trade with China. On contentious issues such as the South China Sea, Australia has straddled a fine line, broadly supporting U.S. arguments in favor of freedom of navigation, while declining to conduct maritime patrols within 12 nautical miles of Beijing’s controversial artificial islands.
A Mandarin speaker who served as a diplomat in Beijing in the 1980s, Rudd proposed the creation of the Asia Pacific Community, a political union that would have included Australia, the United States, China, Japan and India, among other nations, during his first term.
Although the initiative failed to make headway after running into skepticism from the U.S. and resistance from Southeast Asian countries including Singapore and Indonesia, Rudd continued to lobby for smoother ties across Asia as the head of the U.S.-based Asia Society Policy Institute.
Weighing in on the recent ruling by an international arbitration panel against Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, Rudd contextualized its rejection of the judgment by noting that countries such as the U.S. and Russia had similarly ignored unfavorable rulings.
“Look, I believe in the UN. I actually believe in multilateral institutions,” he said in an interview with Charlie Rose earlier this month. “But the key question we face is what do we do now in terms of resolving disputes in the South China Sea? And that, I think, is now a practical case of diplomacy and negotiations”
But despite a China-friendly image, Rudd would have been unlikely to kowtow to the country at the UN, Graham said, pointing to his tenure as prime minister.
“That was actually the same concern that played in advance, that is that having a Mandarin speaker and a Chinese specialist would therefore translate into a softer policy,” said Graham.
“But that wasn’t the case. As prime minister, Rudd was actually tougher on China than a lot of people expected. And, actually, I think to compensate for the fact that he was seen as being in the China camp, I think it probably worked reverse if anything,” he said.
John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia.
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