Updated: Nov 23
I interviewed former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for UN Youth.
Kevin Rudd was 15 years old when he wrote a letter to then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam asking for advice on becoming a diplomat, Gough replied and set Kevin’s life journey into motion.
“[Gough wrote] ‘I really think you should go to university and you should study a foreign language’ so that kind of began the idea,” Rudd tells me over a Zoom call with a smile on his face. Before entering politics, Mr Rudd had a career as a diplomat in the Australian Foreign Service.
“As a diplomat, your added value to the country lies first of all in being an accurate analyst of what’s going on in Australia’s environment, to identify changes which either present opportunities or threats to the enduring Australian national interest,” he says. “But your second responsibility, which I learnt over a period of time, is not just to describe but to advise on what Australia should do about those opportunities and threats.”
Elected to the Australian Parliament in 1998, throughout his political career Mr Rudd would serve in several roles, most notably as Minister for Foreign Affairs and as Prime Minister. After retiring from politics in 2013, he’s stayed very involved with policy, now the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.
“There is a question about America’s global role, whether it will continue to be the lynchpin of the worlds rules-based system or not”
Mr Rudd believes there are many crucial issues that will define international affairs for Australia over the next 25 years. “The certainties that we’ve known for the last three-quarters of a century since the last world war are beginning to become unstuck,” he said. “There is a question about America’s global role, whether it will continue to be the lynchpin of the worlds rules-based system or not”
He’s also cautious of the role that China should play and how Australia should respond to it. “The smart thing to do is to look very carefully at the essence of this Marxist-Leninist State and work out our terms of coexistence with that Marxist-Leninist State rather than having romantic delusions that it would be in the interest of an advanced liberal democracy like Australia to be part and parcel of a Chinese-led international system,” he said.
When it comes to Climate Change, he isn’t convinced that organisations like the UN have failed, but that particular countries are refusing to act. “Most of the countries of Europe are united in a common resolve to act on Climate Change, so this is not a universal condition across the international family,” he says.
“Countries like the United States under the Republicans have decided to step off the planet and to somehow argue the proposition that climate change is either a hoax or is just too damn politicly inconvenient” he continues.
“The United Nations is the worst system of international government in the world, except for all the others. That’s why it’s worth backing”
He believes that Australia is falling into that trap. “It is for me repugnant that the Australian Government has indicated that for the current Paris Agreement, it will not provide any new national targets for Australia to bring down its emissions by in 2020, despite the fact the agreement mandates all nation-states in 2020 will provide a new set of commitments”.
When I asked about the anxiety, many young people are feeling about the COVID recession he stressed the importance to remember that things will get better, but that government needs to play its part. “The good news is economies recover, the responsibility of government during the recovery period is to provide sufficient support for young people who can’t yet secure a job, to put them on a living wage to support themselves while they obtain further skills.”
“Everybody has got to live and live with a level of decency and dignity, point two for young people I would take any downtime you’ve got on your hands to develop another set of skills. It may be that you decide that if you’re going to not be able to comfortably secure a job for the next 12 months or 18 months, learn Mandarin Chinese, learn Indonesian, pick up another skill. That’s what I’d be doing, but the government needs to play its part”.
Mr Rudd still believes in international diplomacy and the power of the United Nations as a force for good in the world. “Good on you, UN Youth, keep supporting the cause. The United Nations is the worst system of international government in the world, except for all the others. That’s why it’s worth backing.”