With a rising China, an uncertain economic climate in the United States and political instability in our neighbourhood, there is a genuine need for greater focus on foreign policy issues in the Australian political debate.
With our troops committed to a difficult war in Afghanistan the urgency of our task is real.
What is not clear is that Kevin Rudd’s appointment as Foreign Minister will advance this process.
His bitter relationship with the Prime Minister, characterised by a brutal and fresh political slaying, is a recipe for personal tension and policy inconsistencies at the top.
One cannot foresee Rudd and Julia Gillard amicably and constructively scripting their lines together on the big issues – a certain prerequisite in a game where words are bullets.
Nor can one see that Rudd, with his time spent as a diplomat and prime minister, will willingly accept the judgment of Gillard given her lack of foreign policy experience.
The damage caused to our key bilateral relationships with East Timor and Indonesia by Gillard’s misguided approach to offshore processing, which Rudd openly opposes, will only serve to reinforce his view.
International players, both friend and foe, will understand that the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister do not speak with a single voice.
Like the Australian public, the foreign affairs establishments abroad can tell a political fix it when they see it.
Perceptions count. Rudd’s authority to deliver an unequivocal message on behalf of Australia will be readily challenged.
His ability to win the personal trust of foreign leaders is also in doubt after his well publicised leak of a private conversation with then-US president George W. Bush regarding the G20.
Another key problem will be Rudd’s strained relationship with his own department. There is a chequered history that goes back to his time as a youthful diplomat. There is an expectation he will be out to settle old scores.
As prime minister he vetoed the appointment of Hugh Borrowman as an ambassador by tendentiously claiming he did not possess the requisite foreign language skills.
Rudd’s high turnover of personal office staff, his well-publicised rebukes of those who served him and reported incidents where he kept members of the national security committee endlessly waiting will compound the problem.
Rudd’s task of building bridges is made even more challenging by the memory that his prime ministerial term left the already strained Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade budget further reduced.
But at the core of the concerns that surround Rudd’s appointment is the foreign policy priorities and direction that he will seek to impose.
As prime minister he launched two major multilateral offensives – both of which have stumbled. They were his mistakes alone.
The Asia Pacific Community idea was promoted with little consultation and planning.
Former ambassador Richard Woolcott, who had primary responsibility for selling the new regional grouping, was only approached two hours before the announcement.
Soon our most important partners in Asia were distancing themselves from Rudd’s idea. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, described it as “another layer, an out-of-nowhere construction not in concert, not in synergy with what we have”.
For Gillard the tea leaves were clear. Since becoming Prime Minister she has quietly shelved Rudd’s initiative.
So, too, Rudd’s grandiose plan to seek a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council has been a misdirection of scarce resources.
Sending the Governor-General on an unusual overseas mission to garner support and altering Australia’s voting record in the United Nations in order to win over key African and Middle Eastern nations has also been criticised.
Rudd’s preoccupation with multilateralism has coincided with a weakening in our key bilateral relationships.
With China, he vacillated between a warm embrace at the start of his prime ministership and a gradual distancing as he realised it did not play well domestically and that he had limited ability to change Chinese positions on key issues.
The allegations of Rudd’s personal slur against Chinese delegates at the climate change conference in Copenhagen is the most colourful example of how his relationships quickly soured.Equally, with Japan and India, Australia’s relationships under Rudd suffered.
His decision to bypass Tokyo on his first visit overseas and his continual threats over whaling have caused many to question his diplomatic judgment.
The Rudd government’s unwillingness to approve uranium exports to India to enable that country to reduce its carbon footprint with a civilian nuclear program has caused consternation.
The inconsistency of Australia refusing to sell uranium to India while encouraging fellow members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to sell their uranium to India is not lost on the leadership in New Delhi.Gillard, having now appointed Rudd to the role of Foreign Minister, must live with the consequences.
It is a reflection of her weakness as Prime Minister that she could not keep him outside the tent.
The fact that Gillard has had to readily affirm that when it comes to foreign policy decisions “ultimately, of course, I am the leader” signals to all who care to listen that she is wary of the troubled waters ahead.
At this moment in our history, with troops in the field and major foreign policy issues to be resolved, Australia’s interests require a clear policy direction and a united front.