The Herald has secured access to hundreds of WikiLeaks documents that reveal US embassy assessments of Australia on a range of important issues. We begin publishing today.
The meeting they did have ...George Bush welcomes Kevin Rudd to the G20 summit in Washington in November 2008. Photo: AFP
THE US regards the Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd, as an abrasive, impulsive ”control freak” who presided over a series of foreign policy blunders during his time as prime minister, according to a series of secret diplomatic cables.
The scathing assessment, detailed in messages sent by the US embassy in Canberra to the secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton over several years, are among hundreds of US State Department cables relating to Australia obtained by WikiLeaks and made available exclusively to the Herald.
His performance so far, however, demonstrates that he does not have the staff or the experience to do the job properly
”Rudd … undoubtedly believes that with his intellect, his six years as a diplomat in the 1980s and his five years as shadow foreign minister, he has the background and the ability to direct Australia’s foreign policy. His performance so far, however, demonstrates that he does not have the staff or the experience to do the job properly,” the embassy observed in November last year.
The cables show how initially favourable US impressions of Mr Rudd, described as ”a safe pair of hands”, were quickly replaced by criticism of his micro-management and mishandling of diplomacy as he focused on media opportunities.
In a review in December 2008 of the first 12 months of the Rudd government, the then US ambassador, Robert McCallum, characterised its performance as ”generally competent” and noted that Mr Rudd was focused ”on developing good relations with the incoming US administration [of Barack Obama], and is eager to be seen as a major global player”.
Despite this, what were described as ”Rudd’s foreign policy mistakes” formed the centrepiece of the envoy’s evaluation.
In Mr McCallum’s view, the prime minister’s diplomatic ”missteps” largely arose from his propensity to make ”snap announcements without consulting other countries or within the Australian government”.
According to the assessment, the Labor government’s ”significant blunders” began when the then foreign minister, Stephen Smith, said in February 2008 that Australia would not support strategic dialogue between Australia, the US, Japan and India out of deference to China.
”This was done without advance consultation and at a joint press availability with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi,” Mr McCallum said.
Mr Rudd’s announcement in June 2008 that he would push for the creation of an Asia-Pacific community was cited as another example of a big initiative taken ”without advance consultation with either other countries (including south-east Asian nations – leading Singaporean officials to label the idea dead on arrival) or within the Australian government (including with his proposed special envoy to promote the concept, veteran diplomat Richard Woolcott)”.
Similarly Mr Rudd’s establishment of an international commission on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation was ”rolled out … during a photo op-heavy trip to Japan … His Japanese hosts were given insufficient advance notice and refused a request for a joint announcement”.
The embassy said Mr Rudd did not consult any of the five nuclear weapons states on the United Nations Security Council and Russia had formally protested.
The cables also refer to Mr Rudd’s ”control freak” tendencies and ”persistent criticism from senior civil servants, journalists and parliamentarians that Rudd is a micro-manager obsessed with managing the media cycle rather than engaging in collaborative decision making”.
In November last year, the embassy delivered another sharp assessment that Mr Rudd dominated foreign policy decision making, ”leaving his foreign minister to perform mundane, ceremonial duties and relegating the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to a backwater”.
”Other foreign diplomats, in private conversations with us, have noted how much DFAT seemed to be out of the loop,” the US charge d’affaire Dan Clune said. ”The Israeli ambassador [Yuval Rotem] told us that senior DFAT officials are frank in asking him what PM Rudd is up to and admit they are out of the loop.”
Mr Clune said morale within DFAT had ”plummeted, according to our contacts inside as well as outside the department”.
The embassy blamed the department’s decline on the weakness of Mr Smith, who was dismissed as being ”on vacation”.
”Surprised by his appointment as Foreign Minister, Smith has been very tentative in asserting himself within the government,” Mr Clune said.
”DFAT contacts lamented that Smith took a very legalistic approach to making decisions, demanding very detailed and time-consuming analysis by the department and using the quest for more information to defer making decisions.”
David Pearl, a Treasury official on Mr Smith’s staff in 2004, told US diplomats he was ”very smart but intimidated both by the foreign policy issues themselves and the knowledge that PM Rudd is following them so closely”.
DFAT’s former first assistant secretary for north Asia, Peter Baxter, told embassy officers that ”Smith’s desire to avoid overruling DFAT recommendations meant that he often delayed decisions to the point that the PM’s office stepped in and took over”.
The embassy further recounted that after Israel started its military offensive in Gaza in December 2008, Mr Rotem contacted Mr Smith at home to ask for Australia’s public support.
Despite the sensitivity of the issue, ”Rotem told (the embassy) that Smith’s response was that he was on vacation, and that the ambassador needed to contact Deputy Prime Minister Gillard, who was acting prime minister and foreign minister at the time”.
Mr Rudd’s determination to dominate foreign policy diminished the influence of his department, with one assistant secretary telling the embassy the foreign policy staff of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet were ”overwhelmed [by] supporting Rudd’s foreign policy activities, particularly his travel, which has reduced its ability to push its own agenda”.
A senior executive in the prime minister’s department, Gordon Debrouwer, told the embassy ”PM&C foreign policy staff have been run ragged answering the PM’s queries and supporting his interaction with foreign officials”. Mr Clune said Mr Rudd’s ”haphazard, overly secretive decision-making process” would continue to generate foreign policy problems.
Mr Rudd may no longer be prime minister but he is very much in charge of Australia’s diplomacy.