News & Media
Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd and the race for the United Nations

Last Updated:2016-08-02

by Geoff Raby


Like Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare's play who, racked by guilt, suffered terrible dreams, Malcolm Turnbull may become haunted by his decision not to back Kevin Rudd for the United Nation's secretary-general job. And like the murdered King Duncan, Rudd may refuse to die. His hand may reach out from the grave and grab hold of the Prime Minister. Rudd's run at the job is far from over.


Rudd is understandably angry with his rejection, and the manner in which it was done, and smarting over the humiliation he has received, especially in front of the people that matter most to Rudd – those that stride the international stage of policy and diplomacy. As we have seen from his domestic political career, Rudd is not a quitter. And like most politicians, has a hide much thicker than most people could imagine.


Selection processes for prestigious heads of international organisations are usually brutal exercises in great power arm wrestling, even if usually conducted out of the public's eye. This is a world Rudd understands better than most, revels and excels in.


Sometimes it ends up in the open, such as the bruising selection of the WTO secretary-general in 1999 which had Australia aligned with the Thai candidate, former deputy prime minister Supachai Panitchpakdi, against former (very briefly) New Zealand prime minister Mike Moore, backed by the United States. On that occasion, unusually Australia and the US were entrenched on opposite sides of the argument.


A history of backbiting


The foreign minister Alexander Downer and trade minister Tim Fischer did not like Moore's Labor Party politics, but even more they did not like the man. In that contest, the organisation fought itself to exhaustion. The divisions and rancour created harmed the WTO's work, which unlike the UN, relies on consensus decision-making.


Fischer eventually led a process to find a "circuit breaker", which was a diplomatically negotiated split term for the two candidates. No one was happy and the opportunity to launch a new multilateral trade round at the Seattle Ministerial meeting in 1999 was missed with lasting cost to the international trading system.


Australia's failing to support the New Zealand candidate, like the government's decision today not to endorse Rudd, was hugely damaging for Moore. In one meeting on the margins of the Davos World Economic Forum, then US Trade Representative said to Downer that "Mike's a great guy" and has "lots of ideas". To which Downer replied, "yes and they are all dopey". The US quickly circulated Downer's comments around the Geneva delegations as evidence that Australia was "playing the man". The US was determined to get its candidate up and spared no effort. In the end, Moore was
appointed first, if only for a split term.


Herein is Rudd's biggest hope and the PM's potential nightmare.


The PM's statement that he had formed the view that Rudd is not qualified for the position was a mistake and has left the PM no wriggle room, something his political mentor John Howard would not have done. "Qualified" is at best heavily subjective but in a highly-contested and political competition, like the UNSG selection, is almost meaningless. Any number of dud candidates have been appointed to these positions because of the politics of regional balance, sharing the spoils, or just sheer pride and bloody-mindedness of some governments, notably the French.


A better justification for not supporting Rudd, and one which would have saved Rudd's face and given the PM some room to manoeuvre, would have been to say that he had been advised by Australia's highly professional and well informed diplomats that Rudd's chances were exceedingly slim.


He could then have said that as supporting a candidate for such a position would require substantial government resources it was judged not to be in Australia's interest to put that effort into what he was advised would in effect be a doomed campaign.


Unfortunately, the opportunity of ending this exercise with dignity has now been lost.


Qualifications don't matter


Others would have formed a view on Rudd's qualities and qualifications. His competitors would certainly have been making everyone aware that Rudd had been quickly rejected by his own cabinet colleagues in 2010 – which makes some of his former colleagues' criticisms of the PM a bit rich. Their public comments on Rudd's leadership and personal style would most likely have been circulated by Rudd's competitors to refresh memories. And then Rudd was also rejected by the Australian electorate.


Both are damning for the candidate's claims to be able to lead large complex organisations and are now part of the historical record and Rudd's personal baggage. This time around, the field is particularly big with some dozen candidates, several of whom have had successful careers as heads of their respective governments. If it were purely based on merit and record of public service, then the choice would be rather simple. But the international politics at play will ensure that it is not and that despite the best hopes of the UN Secretariat to run a smooth process and have it all wrapped up by the time of the UN General Assembly in September, most likely it will not be.


Ten years ago when the current incumbent, Ban Ki-moon, was campaigning, it was in a smaller, shallower field. Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, was in effect the equivalent of the secretary of DFAT. We've had some outstanding secretaries, but would not consider them for UNSG. Ban Ki-moon was underwhelming in the campaign. He has proven to be hard-working, sincere but altogether uninspiring. He suited the times. The Bush administration was still high on Iraq and had never cared for the UN. To the contrary, it continued to be suspicious and hostile. Arguably, after Africa it was Asia's turn.


Eastern Europe doesn't have it locked


Times have changed. The world is much more fractured now than then. The crisis and despair in the Middle East has only deepened and problems seem intractable for individual states without the UN's involvement. Russia has stepped outside of the European consensus on just about everything, but most importantly on respect for territorial integrity. China is now busily seeking to re-shape the international order to reflect its economic might.


The Permanent Five (US, China, Russia, France, UK) effectively will settle the SG selection, but on this occasion it will be in a context of much greater geo-political competition and tension than since the end of the Cold War. And the US is most likely to elect an ambitious, internationally activist, President who will show much more interest in the UN than either of her two immediate predecessors.


It should be eastern Europe and Russia's turn to come up with a candidate. But with the tensions between Russia and the rest it is unlikely to be someone from this group. This is the hope of all the other candidates. The dark prince in the contest is, of course, Vladimir Putin and how he uses Russia's Permanent Five veto.


With EU sanctions still applied to Russia, it is most unlikely that any of the European candidates would get up. This gives countries such as Australia and New Zealand a sniff. The New Zealanders – who are never slow in spotting an opportunity – clearly believe they have a real chance to be the successful compromise candidate.


A push is also under way for gender balance. UNSGs until now have only been men. Set against the geo-political realities, however, this is unlikely to be material for a Putin or a Xi Jinping.


Chinese whispers


China typically keeps a low profile during contests for such positions. It wants maximum flexibility to shape the final outcome while avoiding paying a price for its preferred candidate.


Rudd seems to have done an excellent job in repairing his standing in Beijing following his time as prime minister. Among Beijing officialdom, while Rudd is still not much liked, he is also seen as someone China could work with and preferable to the alternatives because he does know China. China may be unenthusiastic, but Beijing would not block him.


So once again the US will find itself in the position of king maker. While President Barack Obama may see little legacy value in the outcome, Candidate Clinton may well view this as an early opportunity to establish herself as a foreign policy President. Moreover, Clinton with her more activist foreign policy stance compared with Obama's and her greater preparedness to use America's military power may be particularly focussed on the future role of the UN as a legitimiser of her foreign policy. After all, the coincidence of her election and the SG's appointment mean that in all probability they will need to live with each other for the next eight years.


It would not be difficult, then, for the US to cause the selection of the SG to be delayed until after 8 November. Seldom do selection processes for international bodies meet their internally-imposed deadlines. The rules around such things in international organisations are there for the powerful states to break, as they often do.


Rudd is both an assiduous networker and cultivator of powerful people who might at some stage be of use to advance his own personal ambitions. He has established himself among the US foreign policy elite as one of the most incisive commentators on US-China relations. He had strong backing from Henry Kissinger in the face of criticism over his appointment to the Asia Society Institute.


The Hillary connection


He is close with Hillary Clinton and has long been an admirer. In the early stages of the 2008 Presidential campaign he favoured her over Obama. They both embrace a hard-edged realist view of foreign policy which does not flinch from the US using military power in pursuit of its foreign and security policy objectives.


In the infamous WikiLeaks' release in 2011, Rudd is quoted in a US State Department report saying to Secretary Clinton, in managing China when all else fails "we always have the military option". Clinton did not respond. She may then have been thinking that one day she may have to make that decision, which Rudd would never have to. Nonetheless, they seem to be like-minded and she has been at times fulsome in her praise of Rudd. She seems genuinely to value and admire Rudd's insights into and advice on China.


If the UNSG selection process is extended beyond September, then Rudd has a chance. His strategy so far has had two main elements. One is to be the compromise candidate when all others have exhausted themselves and the selection process is in gridlock. The other is for Clinton to be President-elect and back him into the job.


Will Turnbull have to eat dust?


The manner of the PM's rejection of Rudd and declaring him unfit to serve has certainly harmed his chances of becoming the compromise candidate of choice. It will, however, have done nothing to weaken Clinton's support for Rudd if she decides to spend political capital on his appointment. He ticks all the boxes for her, not least as someone who purportedly knows how to handle China.


As she prepares for the presidency, looking ahead she would deeply understand that dealing with China and its geopolitical and strategic challenges to the US will be among the biggest tests of her time as president. How she handles it could well define her presidency.


While Putin would not welcome Rudd in the job, it also provides an opportunity tobegin to deal with the President-elect and some attractive concessions might be gained in return for not vetoing Rudd.


Malcolm Turnbull must hope against the odds that either the UNSG selection process is resolved in September or that Trump triumphs. If both do not happen, when the PM makes his first telephone call to President-elect Clinton to congratulate her he needs to be well prepared for her to say, among many other important things, that "Kevin's a great guy, the most knowledgeable person there is on China, and we would really welcome your help in having him appointed UNSG".


It would take a Keatingesque leader to resist such US pressure. And when the Prime Minister advises his cabinet of Clinton's request, those who were most opposed to Rudd will ask the loudest, how high does she wish us to jump? Consistency is not something the Prime Minister's enemies in the cabinet care about. They care most about humiliating him and undermining his authority. And Rudd will have his revenge on Malcolm, which now he so badly craves.


Dr Geoff Raby is chairman and CEO of Geoff Raby & Associates and served as Ambassador to China under Kevin Rudd and Julia GIllard. He worked with Kevin Rudd in Australia's Beijing embassy in 1986.

(Source: Australian Financial Review)