Kevin Rudd covers all bases in quest to take over UN top job

Posted in News

Pamela Williams

Stepping from his brownstone home in New York’s Upper East Side, Kevin Rudd usually heads for the airport. If it’s Wednesday it’s Paris, if it’s Friday it’s Addis Ababa, if it’s Monday it’s Beijing. He has that kind of life.

But there is one destination far closer to home that plays on the mind of the globetrotting former Australian prime minister: the UN headquarters — a quick walk around the corner and three blocks to the front door.

In the vast metropolis of Manhattan, Rudd is in his milieu when he reaches 1 United Nations Plaza. But it is the office on the 38th floor, where the secretary-general presides, that has Rudd’s attention. Over the past year, reports have gathered pace that Rudd, an epic networker, is preparing the groundwork for a pitch to replace UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who retires at the end of the year. The reports have prompted derisive jokes in Australia about Rudd’s reputation as a megalomaniac. His aspirations are dismissively filed in the “typ­ical Kevin” basket.

Despite the UN being a target of conservatives who regard it as a time-wasting, left-leaning ­bureaucracy filled with fellow travellers, the role of secretary-general remains one of the world’s most prestigious public leadership pos­itions.

With the UN’s months-long ­selection process for a new sec­­retary-general about to begin, the power of Rudd’s international connections, and his campaign, are coming into focus. To the ­astonishment of hometown ­critics, Rudd is a serious candid­ate. He has attracted some heavy-duty backers in the world of geopolitics.

Rudd, thus far, has declared ­repeatedly that he is not a can­didate. He has left open the question of whether that will change.

In the labyrinthine world of UN horse-trading, Rudd may have only a narrow opportunity for a tilt, given the interplay of ­expectations about whose turn it is and whether a woman should win. But he has positioned himself as a compromise candidate should a puff of white smoke fail to emerge from the chimney for one of the frontrunners.

Rudd holds an array of signif­icant international roles, which take him around the world, simultaneously building a solid framework for his candidacy. His initial post-politics appointment in 2013 to one prestigious position in the US has led to others, so much so that JFK airport could be his second home.

Rudd is president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, an offshoot of the Asia Society, an ­organisation which itself is steeped in stellar political and business connections. Circumnavigating the world as the head of the ASPI think tank — chairing conferences, lecturing, producing papers — gives Rudd an open door to the top ranks of business and political leaders, and foreign ministries.

Equally as important as his Asia Society position is Rudd’s role as chairman of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism, a project of the long-time New York-based International Peace Institute, which has the UN’s Ban as its honorary chairman and Rudd on its board of directors.

For Rudd, this delivers extraordinary access to every national decision-maker and stakeholder in the UN. The ICM has commenced a two-year inquiry into the UN itself, and whether the ­organisation is correctly positioned to fulfil its mission.

Rudd sits at the peak, assisted by two co-chairs — Borge Brende, the Foreign Minister of Norway, and John Baird, the Foreign Minister of Canada. The secretariat is led by former Indian ambassador to the UN Hardeep Singh Puri. Beyond­ this, Rudd has structured the ­organisation with an advisory council of eminent persons, an active group of foreign ministers and a further tier of ambassadors.

He has said that the objective is to examine the UN in the context of global challenges and will produce­ 16 papers — covering the spectrum of the UN remit, from terrorism, to fragile states, women, migration and refugees, new technology, the relationship between the UN and regional organisations, climate change, human rights, weapons of mass destruction and non-proliferation agreements, global health, empowering youth, peacekeeping and communication strategies. In a nutshell, everything.

A final ICM report is due by the end of the year, but some expect Rudd to produce it as early as next month.

Josette Sheeran, the president and chief executive of the Asia ­Society in New York, does not skimp on her admiration for Rudd. She gives a bird’s-eye view of a significant organisation going out of its way to recruit him.

In April 2014, the Asia Society launched a strategic initiative — a think tank to be known as the Asia Society Policy Institute. It was ­envisaged as an Asia-centric network of experts, devoted to ­enhancing links between Asian nations, between Asia and the US, and between Asia and the world.

Honorary counsellors for the new think tank included former US secretaries of state Madeleine Albright, James Baker, Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice, former Pakistan prime minister Shaukat Aziz, and financiers such as Stephen Schwarzman, chairman and chief executive of the Blackstone Group.

A global search was launched for a chair to run ASPI.

As Sheeran recounts, it was near the end of the search when she organised an Asia Society event in September 2014 — a conversation between former US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson and Rudd.

Rudd’s name was not on any lists or short lists for the ASPI chairman’s position. But Sheeran knew both men from her time as head of the UN World Food Program. Asia Society trustees attending the event included Canadian rower and Olympic gold medallist Michael Evans, a long-time investment banker, now president of ­Alibaba.

“We had many of our trustees present,’’ Sheeran recalls. “Afterwards, I was approached by separate trustees to say that Kevin Rudd would be the perfect person to head the ASPI. They were ­extremely taken with his ability to understand Asia. I was struck, as this came independently from two or three of our trustees.

“So we put together a dinner with trustees so that they could meet Kevin. For us to have someone who has devoted their life to understanding Asia and China — Kevin brings a really good strat­egic mind to tackle these challenges for ASPI.”

Rudd travels constantly. When news emerges that he has been in Moscow visiting a Russian powerbroker, it transpires that his entree comes courtesy of his chairmanship of the ICM or his role as pres­ident of ASPI.

He often sees French President Francois Hollande. He is said to slip comfortably in and out of the Foreign Ministry in Quai d’Orsay. When he cruises into 10 Downing Street to discuss the UN in the context of the ICM inquiry with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s chief of staff, Ed Llew­ellyn, Rudd is in the citadel of ­another of the UN’s Security Council’s permanent five members (known as the P5). One thing rolls into another.

There is no question that Rudd is held in extremely high regard by the international organisations he works with.

He was appointed by former Goldman Sachs chief and US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson as the first Distinguished Fellow of the Paulson Institute.

He is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, from where he produced a paper on US-China ­relations that caught the eye of US President Barack Obama, among others, bringing Rudd into a circle of those who Obama has personally sought out to consult on China. He is a Distinguished Statesman at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, and a Distinguished Fellow at Chatham House in London.

In December he was appointed to the advisory board of the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing, ­together with Dom­inic Barton, the global managing director of McKinsey & Co, and Mary Scha­piro, a director of the London Stock Exchange, General Electric, and previously chairwoman of the US Securities & Exchang­e Commission.

More recently, Rudd was ­appointed to chair the Sanitation and Water for All partnership by Tony Lake, executive director of UNICEF and a former Clinton-era national security adviser.

Time magazine in December carried Adele on the cover, draped in red. Inside, writing on China, it carried Rudd.

Rudd spun through Davos in January; he joined the Paris ­clim­ate change talks, COP21, last year, accredited with a courtesy pass from the UN.

He has the early and full-throated support of the well-connecte­d Jose Ramos-Horta, the former East Timorese president who has hailed Rudd’s potential as a UN secretary-general.

Last month Rudd attended the Munich ­Security Conference, with a who’s who of international ­politics, joining the China panel. He has not been standing still.

Gareth Evans, foreign minister in the Hawke government and for many years head of the Inter­national Crisis Group in Brussels, is today chancellor of the Australian National University. Late last year he delivered an address on Australia’s relationship with China and the US. He included an assessment of Rudd’s 2015 Harvard Kennedy School paper on the future of US-China relations under President Xi Jinping as the best recent analysis of how the relation­ship might be managed, describing Rudd as a globally respecte­d figure in the field.

“Whatever scars he might still wear at home, (Rudd is) someone who is regarded internationally as one of the most thoughtful and best-informed thinkers on this subject,” Evans said.

With his work for ASPI and his role chairing the Multilateral Commission, Rudd has repeatedly visited member states of the UN Security Council; Paris, London, Moscow, Beijing, then back to New York and off again. “He is dauntingly clever,” says one observe­r from Australia’s diplomatic network. “Good Kevin is on display. He has a beam-like focus.”

Those close to Rudd say he is optimistic that he could win the backing of the US and China in any play-off between compromise candidates for the top UN post: ­potentially Rudd versus Helen Clark of New Zealand. Clark has not yet declared her candidacy.

Still, there are strong winds gusting in other directions. In the complex UN membership system, rotations of power are all-important. There is considerable pressure for the next secretary-general to come from the East European membership bloc — which has never had a turn — and, moreover, that it should be a woman.

“Kevin Rudd could become a woman,” wise-cracked one of Rudd’s arch enemies. “But not an East European woman.”

Rudd’s critics, legion in Australia, allege that he has files on the strengths and shortcomings of other candidates. He is said to have referred to Clark as “Helen from Helengrad”, while explaining that it was a term used by ­others. At this point in the UN proceedings­, every candidate could conceivably have a dirt file on everyone else, of course, much of which will eventually end up in the media as the contest tightens.

Certainly in 2008 Rudd campaigned for Clark to win the ­position of head of the UN Development Program. Still, all is fair in love and war, it would seem.

The UN membership is broken into five loose geographic groupings: the Western European and Others Grouping (known as WEOG, and of which Australia, New Zealand, the US and Britain are members); the Eastern European Group; the Asia-Pacific Group; the African Group; and the Latin American and Caribbean Group.

The selection of a new secret­ary-general will be made by the 15-member Security Council. The five permanent members of the council — the US, Russia, China, Britain and France, each with a veto — are thus the key decision-makers.

In the past, news of a new secretary-general simply emerged from the Security Council as an edict to the General Assembly. The decision-making follows a convoluted, secretive process evoking the mystery surrounding the election of a pope, with a puff of smoke at the finale.

Straw polls take place as can­didates’ names are affirmed for further rounds or eliminated. Members of the P5 have red ballot papers; the 10 rotating members have white.

Each ballot paper is marked “encouragement”, “discouragement” or “no opinion”, and the member circles one option. By the end, a successful candidate must have no red ballots cast.

Last year, the UN General ­Assembly pushed back against the exclusivity of the process, seeking greater involvement. A new resolution was issued in December to open the selection process with ­informal talks with candidates in the assembly. In other words, a beauty parade.

These talks are set for April 12-14. Candidates who have ­already been formally nominated by their countries will deliver an opening statement — their vision, their plans — and take questions.

The formal Security Council process begins in July in closed session, with a decision expected in September. The power of the Security Council remains undim­inished. All five permanent members of the Security Council must ultimately support the same candidate.

Should the US decide to block a particular candidate believed to be too close, for example, to Russia, then by exercising a veto that candidate is expunged. Should Russia oppose Eastern Europeans from among its former satellites, the Russian veto will obliterate them. China, France and Britain can ­exercise their own veto. And so it goes. The new secretary-general starts on January 1 next year.

Both Rudd and Clark will be closely tuned to any indications that other candidates — possibly the East Europeans — have been knocked out, clearing the way for a compromise candidate. But even if the UN’s interest in selecting an Eastern European is sidelined by geopolitics, a woman could prevail given the UN focus on diversity after years of male secretaries-general. It could provide a window for Clark, who ­already leads one of the biggest UN agencies.

Behind the scenes, crypto­graphers familiar with the P5 speculate that Clark could prove too left-wing for the US. Or that Rudd could seem too activist for Russia. Still, in the event of a compromise candidate, Rudd is rated by many as having at least a 30 per cent chance. Some in the diplomatic belt cautiously put it as high as 50 per cent. Others say no chance, given the focus on women.

A spokesman for the US mission to the UN said the US was ­“focused on selecting the best ­candidate for this crucial position. Among the qualifications that we would necessarily look for in ­candidates are proven management and leadership skills, a demon­strated commitment to a culture of transparency, ethics, fairness and accountability, and an understanding of and commitment to the founding principles of the UN.”

Rudd will weigh up the balance. If the signals improve that a compromise candidate is possible, he will be at the door of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop seeking formal support and the backing of Australia’s diplomatic network.

Bishop discussed the secretary-general race with Rudd in the months after he lost the 2013 federal election, asking him what he planned to do. She has been viewed as neutral at worst and friendly at best to the idea of Rudd as secretary-general. She has said Australia would consider supporting him if he sought a nomination but that the matter would go to cabinet once a full list of candid­ates was available.

Former Portuguese prime minis­ter Antonio Guterres, who served two consecutive terms as UN high commissioner for refugees, was nominated last month by Portugal (a member of Australia’s WEOG regional group). Also nominated last month was the woman tipped at this early stage as the frontrunner: Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian, former communist and currently director-general of one of the biggest UN agencies, UNESCO.

Conservatives harbour deep reservations given Bokova’s communist past and her attendance at Vladimir Putin’s World War II 70th anniversary military parade in Red Square last year. She was there with Ban. Many Western leaders declined to attend given the situation in Ukraine. But Bokova is from the Eastern European Group and Bulgaria will push her credentials hard, while also campaigning for a woman in the job.

Last week the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry announced a working group of 16 diplomats, top bureaucrats and UN experts to support her. It signalled that work is well under way examining UN selection procedures, including the transparency procedures intro­duced last year. One official in each Bulgarian embassy has been tapped to work on Bokova’s campaign. In other words, all guns are blazing.

Some UN watchers rate highly another woman — not a candidate thus far — from the Latin American group. Susana Malcorra, ­appointed as Argentina’s Foreign Minister less than six months ago, was previously chef de cabinet to Ban and is a former deputy director of the World Food Program.

Other nominated candidates come from Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia, Moldova and Slovenia. All of these are from the Eastern European Group.

The idea of Rudd ascending to the secretary-general’s floor in New York leaves some in Australia stunned and others in agreement that no mountain is too high to climb for the ambitious two-time prime minister who was at the centre, with his nemesis Julia Gillard, of a long and ugly battle for political power.

Rudd remains a conundrum. His political past sits in contrast to his post-politics life. Those who have invested him with substantial organisations to run in recent years have only praise.

Terje Rod-Larsen, president of the International Peace Institute — the New York think tank ­behind the Independent Commission on Multilateralism chaired by Rudd — was a central figure in ­negotiations leading to the Oslo Accords of 1993, a former UN special envoy for the Middle East, and a one-time deputy prime minister of Norway.

Rod-Larsen recruited Rudd three years ago to the ICM and describes him as the most outstanding polit­ician and analyst on global affairs he has met, and a superb leader. “I didn’t have any doubt he was the one I wanted to head this commission,” Rod-Larsen says.

“The reason I recruited him was to look into not only the multilateral system but also the enormous challenges for the future of the world system in a broader sense.

“He has a striking talent for understanding geo­politics. I have observed over the years his empathy and understanding of multi­lateral issues.”

Three months ago, Tony Lake, the UNICEF head and former US national security adviser under president Bill Clinton, approached Rudd to chair a global partnership on safe water and effective sanit­ation.

Rudd chaired the first talks last week in Ethiopia, bringing together­ ministers for water and sanitation from more than 40 countries, diplomats, technical ­experts and representatives from development agencies. Rudd ­extended greetings in French to those present.

But for all the appointments and linguistic gymnastics and hither-thither of Rudd’s new life, the UN position is a cold, hard climb up a steep and slippery slope. Reality is sometimes a shifting mirage in world affairs.

Whether Rudd has truly made amends for his reference to the Chinese as “ratf..kers” in relation to the 2009 Copenhagen talks on climate change, no one knows. He is on good terms with President Xi.

He has carefully and assiduously moved over the past two years to resolve his China relationship crisis.

By some accounts, during talks early this month on ICM business with staff in the British Prime Minister’s office, Rudd took the opportunity to float the idea of him running as a UN compromise candidate.

The British Foreign Office ­declined to comment on the secretary-general race, with a spokeswoman telling The Weekend Australian: “We want to see the best candidate ­selected for the job. We believe in a fair and transparent process, ­especially one that encourages strong female candidates.”

Rudd is regarded in UN circles as enjoying a good relationship with the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, and with US National Security Adviser Susan Rice — two pivotal figures in American deliberations over Ban’s successor.

Locally, too, Rudd has put out feelers, testing the waters. On ­November 12 last year, the day after delivering a speech in Canberra on reconciliation, Rudd visit­ed the then editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, at his office in Sydney’s Surry Hills.

“Rudd asked me if the newspaper would back him if he ran for the secretary-general’s job. He said he thought the East European candidates would tend to cancel each other out or be vetoed by the Russians, and Helen Clark would be the surviving candidate,” ­Mitchell says.

“He said his relationships with Malcolm Turnbull and Julie ­Bishop were strong and that if it came down to a run-off between himself and Clark, they would have to back a former Australian prime minister.”

Rudd, in Beijing this week, did not respond to questions about his meeting with Mitchell, with his spokeswoman adding that he does not comment on private conver­sations with editors or journalists.

The question of Australia’s support for a Rudd candidacy remains a hurdle. With suspicions on the Right of the Liberal Party that Bishop might be a little too soft on Rudd, some conservative voices, including those of Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi, have moved ­already to slap down any idea of backing Rudd.

But, privately, Bishop has told colleagues that if Rudd were a ­candidate, then the Australian government would have to support him.

So far, Rudd’s campaign has been low-key, but he will have to raise his head soon or lose ­momentum as the processes at the General ­Assembly get under way in three weeks.

Given Russia’s ability to ­ultimately crush Rudd in August with a red ballot marked “discouragement”, Rudd’s prospects seem real but ­unlikely. Would Rudd be seen as too much of a reformer? Too close to the US?

Dick Woolcott, a former diplomat and Australian ambassador to the UN in the mid-1980s, is cautious in his estimate of Rudd’s chances but believes Australia must back him if he runs.

“The secretary-general of the UN is not necessarily the best qualified of those who may seek the job,’’ he says. “The permanent five, especially Russia and China, and sometimes the US, have been reluctant to agree to major ­reforms. But if Kevin Rudd announces he will stand, I consider the Australian government should support him as an Australian.”

So far, Kevin Rudd is still counting numbers at the top table.

So near and yet so far.

Source: The Australian