One on One with Kevin Rudd

June 6, 2014
By Belfer Center Communications

Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a visiting fellow with the Institute of Politics. At the Belfer Center, Rudd leads a major research effort on the possibilities and impacts of a new strategic relationship between China and the United States. He also is engaged in a range of international challenges including global economic management, climate change and sustainability development.

Q: Of the many issues and crises that confront heads of state and government, how did you determine priorities when you were prime minister?

Rudd: The core challenge for any head of government is to balance the relative priorities between domestic policy and foreign policy. This in turn will be shaped by pre-election commitments. In my own case as prime minister, that meant determining the right priorities concerning the global financial crisis as well as more classical foreign policy challenges within our region. The number one international policy challenge for my government was dealing with the worst global financial economic crisis since the Great Depression. It obviously was not anticipated before an election but it had to take priority over everything else for the simple reason that in the absence of an effectively functioning financial system and robust economy, all other priorities of the government would have been significantly undermined.

Beyond that immediate crisis, our foreign policy challenges were determined by our geographical and global circumstances. Australia saw itself as a middle power with both regional and global interests. Within our own region, priorities had to be attached to our relationship with the southwest pacific and southeast Asia, and also with our principal economic partners in northeast Asia and India. Australia also worked hard to secure expansion of the East Asia Summit to include the United States and Russia so that all the principal powers of East Asia were assembled around a common table with an open agenda to discuss the region’s future.

Globally, Australia has always been committed to a properly functioning UN multilateral system. One of our priorities was to contest a non-permanent vacancy for the UN Security Council. That decision was taken immediately upon being elected. After a three- or four-year campaign, the Government succeeded in being elected to the council, in the position which it still holds.

Q: What advice would you give Harvard students and other aspiring public leaders to help them prepare for leadership positions in government?

Rudd: The core challenge is to identify what you believe in, why you believe it, and what you want to do about it. This is the standard advice that I’ve given young people throughout Australia and the world over the last decade. Anyone engaged in public life must understand their guiding mission in order to effectively navigate their own public and political career, consistent with that mission, rather than simply pursuing a career for its own purpose.

Furthermore, acquiring the practical skills necessary to give effect to a person’s underlying philosophical mission in public life is equally important. That’s why the skills acquired, for example at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), are so relevant. Skills, however, are no substitute for clearly working out the values and purpose attached to a public or political policy career.

Q: You recently had a major success when the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan must stop whaling. What lessons can others learn from this experience?

Rudd: Use diplomacy to try and resolve a problem first. We did this in the case of Japan, and over nearly two years worked with our Japanese friends to identify a diplomatic solution to bring about the gradual phasing out of Japanese whaling. However, this ended in an impasse.

We also tried to use the International Whaling Commission, the appropriate multilateral body, to negotiate such an outcome with Japan. Once again, over a two-year period, we weren’t able to bring about any effective long-term phase out to Japanese whaling.

Third, having exhausted both bilateral and multilateral negotiating forums, we then elected, consistent with our commitments prior to the previous Australian election, to take Japan to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Having done so, the key challenge was to organize the most robust legal team and legal case possible to establish that so-called ‘scientific whaling’ was simply commercial whaling disguised as something else.

I’m gratified that Australia succeeded in this action. I believe that it has also been done in a manner with minimal impact on the Australia-Japan bilateral relationship—more conducted as a disagreement between friends. An international dispute mechanism was used between two consenting parties who, prior to the matter being determined by the ICJ, indicated they would accept the jurisdiction of the courts.

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Kevin Rudd meets with local elders to discuss the Ord River Dam at Lake Argyle in Western Australia.

Kevin Rudd meets with local elders to discuss the Ord River Dam at Lake Argyle in Western Australia. As prime minister, Rudd issued Australia’s first public apology to indigenous Australians.

"Acquiring the practical skills necessary to give effect to a person’s underlying philosophical mission in public life is equally important. That’s why the skills acquired, for example at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), are so relevant."