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Would a Trump Presidency Undermine Australia’s Strategic Posting of Rudd to Washington?

Grace McClenahan | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

U.S. Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with His Excellency the Honorable Dr. Kevin Rudd, Ambassador of Australia to the U.S., at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., January 24, 2024. (DOD Photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander Nieves). Image credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff via Wikimedia Commons.

Now Australian Ambassador to the United States (U.S.), former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has found himself at the complicated intersection of diplomacy, politics, and personality. Rudd's appointment reflects a strategic move by the Australian Government and a hope that his expertise as a leading analyst of China will strengthen relationships between the U.S., Australia and China. Donald Trump's recent remarks called into the question the tenability of Rudd's role with the possibility of a Trump re-election in November 2024, and launched discussions over whether Rudd's previous public attitude may hinder his ability to effectively serve Australian interests. Remarks from both parties thus have the potential to compromise Australia's foreign policy interests in the case of a Trump presidency.

Rudd's strategic value as U.S. Ambassador

Rudd’s appointment in 2022 reflects deeper foreign policy motives for Australia and a potential gamble by the Australian Government that Trump will likely not be re-elected. Since leaving government, Rudd has boasted multiple high-profile and important roles in the U.S. as a leading analyst on China, and thus is a valuable asset. For example, in 2020, he was appointed President and CEO of the Asia Society globally and, in 2022, he founded the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis. Given the geopolitical significance of the U.S.-Australia-China trilateral relationship, Rudd's insights can facilitate constructive dialogue and cooperation, transcending personal differences to progress political and economic relationships. Moreover, Rudd's previous roles will allow him to leverage an expansive network of contacts in the U.S. to advance Australian interests. However, if Trump is unable to recognise Rudd's expertise and repair the relationship, Rudd will be unable to reach his full potential as Ambassador.


Rudd vs Trump: Traded insults

Throughout his tenure as an independent think-tanker, Rudd made several comments expressing disdain for Trump. In 2017, Rudd described Trump as a “problem” and a “political liability”, both for Australia and the rest of the world. In an address to Asia Society in 2018, he criticised Trump’s foreign policy positions, stating that he “is not a leading intellectual force.” More recently, in 2022, Rudd’s tweet on X (formerly Twitter) labelled Trump “a traitor to the West”. Rudd’s comments were made in the capacity of his role as an independent think-tanker.


Trump, now presumptive Republican nominee for the 2024 election, was given his chance to hit back at Rudd in a recent interview, stating that he had “heard [Rudd] was a little bit nasty” and that “he’s not the brightest bulb”. Most importantly, Trump threatened that if Rudd was “at all hostile, he will not be there long.”


Overcoming bad blood with diplomatic acumen?

It is imperative to recognise the power of individuals in shaping bilateral relationships, where personal rapport and mutual respect can foster trust and cooperation. An ambassador must take a nuanced approach to fostering bilateral relations, irrespective of personal opinions. However, if Trump were elected as President, the question would become whether Trump's bold and dominant political style will allow for reconciliation with Rudd, and whether Rudd has the skill to smooth over personal differences. Rudd's diplomatic finesse and strategic engagement could prove instrumental in advancing shared objectives and safeguarding the alliance's long-term interests.


Should Trump secure a second term, Rudd's efficacy as Ambassador will hinge on his ability to navigate this complex and currently soured relationship. Several members of the Albanese Government have affirmed that Rudd's position would remain intact if Trump were re-elected. Additionally, several Australian politicians have jumped to defend Rudd's role, including Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who described Rudd as "a very effective ambassador" whose achievements include working on the AUKUS pact and engaging with members of the U.S. Congress on both sides of politics.


While Trump's penchant for blunt rhetoric may present challenges, Rudd is well-placed to leverage his diplomatic acumen and established networks to mitigate tensions. Engaging with Republican vice-presidential contenders and former Trump staffers could signal a willingness to bridge divides and cultivate mutual understanding. Rudd has already shown his value in his successes, particularly in negotiations to get key elements of the AUKUS defence deal approved in Congress. In fact, according to Jared Mondschein of the United States Studies Centre, Rudd's work on AUKUS has already won him support in the U.S from members of both parties.


Additionally, Rudd's expertise in China policy would be particularly useful in the case of Trump's re-election, as Trump's previous 'trade war' whilst in power has significantly weakened the U.S.-China relationship. Trump's remarks that he would impose more tariffs if re-elected raise the stakes for this relationship and will foster more tension if not successfully mitigated through effective diplomacy. Rudd’s posting may thus be seen as strategic both for Australia and the U.S., where he can capitalise on common interests, such as trade, security, and counterterrorism, to foster collaboration and rebuild trust.


An unpredictable outcome

The possibility of Trump’s re-election underscores the enduring importance of the Australian-American alliance amidst a shifting global landscape, particularly in relation to shared interests for defence, security, trade and investment. Rudd's role extends beyond interpersonal dynamics; it encompasses broader foreign policy imperatives.


Ultimately, Rudd's tenure as Australian Ambassador to the United States underscores the complexity of modern diplomacy. Whilst his diplomatic expertise and strategic acumen may help Rudd to navigate the complexities of this nexus and advance Australia's interests on the world stage, Trump's hostility threatens the basis of a strong and effective ambassadorship.

Grace McClenahan is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

She holds a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of Arts (majoring in International Relations) from Macquarie University. Grace has also completed a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice and was admitted as a lawyer in 2023. She is currently studying a Master of Laws at the Australian National University.


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