Kevin Rudd needs to make a virtue out of necessity if he is to deliver on much of his announced diplomatic agenda. Climate change, the Doha Round and financial stabilisation are all big picture issues, and they all require multilateral action if meaningful medium-term results are to be achieved. So, too, will any new undertakings on the nuclear front, another likely candidate for re-emphasis.

Hence Rudd’s dusting off of the middle power rhetoric. So where does this idea come from?

The idea of “middle power activism” highlighted in the speeches Rudd gave before leaving for Washington has deep roots in the ALP that go all the way back to Doc Evatt and his role in shaping the UN system. But it was most famously developed by Gareth Evans at the end of the Cold War. Given the end of bipolarity, Evans’ argument was that a middle power like Australia stood to lose most if the post-Cold War system were allowed to degenerate into a simple kind of power politics. If this premise were accepted, then it followed that the national interest was best secured by investing heavily in “rules-based” diplomacy.

And invest he did. DFAT became a workshop for ideas, with its secretary Mike Costello as a reasonable facsimile of a shuttle diplomat. The list of rewards that owed much to this middle power activism was long; at the least, the Cambodian peace settlement, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the campaign for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

When the Coalition came to office in 1996, it passively inherited and completed the last of these Labor thrusts, even though it was already highly critical of Evans’ philosophy and practice. The workshop was immediately and savagely pruned, with the word “multilateral” being virtually banished from the official phrasebook of Australian diplomacy (with trade as a partial exception).

Downer went on to launch the counter-claim that Australia was “more than a middle power”, which in turn led to an argument about Labor’s “myth of Little Australia” as well as government interest in the idea of Coalitions of the Willing. Adding the finishing touches to this comprehensive bilateral re-jigging of Australian diplomacy, Downer used the occasion of his investiture as Australia’s longest serving foreign minister to redefine government vision as the ramblings of tyrants and dictators.

Rudd’s diplomatic career pre-dated the above-mentioned campaigns of the Evans era, although there were already early skirmishes of this design under Bill Hayden. But as shadow minister for foreign affairs, he put his signature to lengthy documents for both Latham and Beazley that highlighted his awareness of the Labor tradition and his endorsement of it. Given all this, it is probably no accident that Gareth Evans was seen around his old home town in recent times. Or that Rudd should chose to celebrate middle power activism before leaving the country.

But today, as Rudd meets with the globe’s powerbrokers, the question is whether the world has moved on, and permanently.

After all, Evans’ achievements owed much to the characteristics of the brief interval of liberal internationalism that grew out of the end of the Cold War. A new administration in Washington – any new administration – will help Rudd’s reorientation.

But on Doha and the nuclear question, if not quite yet climate change, the big worry is that Rudd’s championing of traditional Labor orientations has come too little and too late to make much difference.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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