Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on the Future of Asia



HOST: Exactly seven years ago this Friday, then Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd faced his nation a polyglot of immigrants and indigenous people whose long story of conflict and humiliation was a bloody, uneasy one. He gave a speech that he said would turn the pages of history.


AUDIO OF THE APOLOGY: We apologize for the laws and policies of successive parliaments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We apologize especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their countries. For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and their families left behind, we say sorry.


HOST: That’s Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivering a real apology in his address to the Australian House of Commons in February 2008, acknowledging the government’s wrongdoings against its aboriginal people. Rudd served twice as Prime Minister of Australia from 2007-2010 and again in 2013. His accomplishments include that apology, his leadership on the Kyoto Climate Change Treaty and keeping his nation from being swept into the global financial meltdown in 2009. Within his Labour Party he remains a controversial figure though from some very rocky internal battles and yesterday he told us that his political days are over.


KEVIN RUDD: I have no intention whatsoever to return to politics in Australia.


HOST: Rudd is now serving as the President of the Asia Society Policy Institute. I sat down with him to discuss his fears about a new Cold War in Europe over the Ukraine crisis.


KEVIN RUDD: My approach is a bit like this – with these things we must always think well ahead. What we must think about carefully is, what would a full-blown second Cold War actually look like. You look about as antique as I am, in which case you and I both remember what the first Cold War was like. Some of the junior woodchucks around the place don’t. It was a pretty ugly period with some serious white-knuckle moments for all of us. So, without providing any particular policy prescription for how we deal with where we’ve got to now in the crisis over the Ukraine, I would encourage all leaders to have a very clear sighted view as to where this ultimately lands us and what exit ramps remain possible in the future. As for Ukraine itself right now, I think a very productive thing to do would be the international community to seek to provide effective levels of support of the Ukrainian economy and if the Ukrainian economy was to find itself in even more fundamentally dire circumstances or in a position of default then I think we’re compounding the problems which already beset that country. But my strategic point is, let’s think ahead about where all of this lands us.


HOST: Rudd speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and values his role as a mediator and an astute observer of Asian politics. Prime Minister Nahendra Modi of India, for instance, may have lost a municipal election in Delhi this week but he says Modi’s mandate is solid.


KEVIN RUDD: I remember, however, that Prime Minister Modi has already one a great series of state elections and his national election outcome at the end of last year was unprecedented in its order or magnitude. So he still has a mandate to go and do that which he set out to do, which is modernise the Indian economy. How he goes in that project given the vociferous nature of Indian state politics is challenge of any federation, not least of which is the United States.


HOST: Although, for someone who’s had some experience of the fickleness of electoral politics in Australia, that’s quite a turnabout. Those people in Delhi voted for Modi eight months ago and all of a sudden then said, “we’re done, we’re finished.” That’s got to be a cause for concern.


KEVIN RUDD: If you are Prime Minister of a country like India – with a billion plus people and you’re running a democracy with a whole bunch of states and a list of regional parties neither you or I have ever heard of before – frankly, having a national win and having a whole bunch of state governments batting for you even if it doesn’t include Delhi; that’s not a bad set of circumstances. My own experiences of politics at a national level is that there is no political utopia moment; you simply take what you have got and you work with it to achieve the maximum policy outcomes you can.


HOST: Kevin Rudd spoke to us about the delicate balance in Asia of keeping China’s rise and the dangerous possible that the US and China would stumble into conflict instead of building open trade and economic partnerships.


KEVIN RUDD: What nations decide, and what their leaders decide, matters in terms of shaping historical developments. That applies for China and the United States. What I see is the two leaders there deciding that a drift towards long term conflict or even war is interests of neither state and, secondly, that therefore it’s best to craft a framework for a bilateral relationship long term that recognizes where the deep differences lie, manages them, identifies also where you can cooperate constructively, and doing so bilaterally, regionally and globally. And maybe over time accumulating sufficient political and diplomat capital to begin step-by-step to build strategic trust. Some may say it won’t work, my view is pretty baseline: I’d much rather be in the business of trying very hard than simply standing back, throwing our hands in the air and saying, “woe is me.”


HOST: Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Minister and the President of the Asia Society Policy Institute.