Kevin Rudd: 'The Liberal International Order is Worth Defending'

Interview with The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Kevin Rudd with Tufts University President Anthony Monaco and Professor Daniel Drezner at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy on March 10, 2017. (Anubhav Gupta)

In an interview with The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd discusses the state of the international liberal order and its future. This interview was originally published here by The Forum on March 26, 2017.

Fletcher Forum: On the rise of nationalism—could you speak a little about this notion of disrupters? Do you think there is space in the political spectrum for disrupters? Or do you think merely by the fact that they operate in extremes, that they only can campaign, but they can’t govern?

Kevin Rudd: There is a certain political arrogance around the concept of being a disrupter and the arrogance is this—to assume that your disruption creates more benefit than it does damage for the greatest number of people. We could point to many disrupters in history, from Attila the Hun on, (there’s a separate debate as to whether those disruptions have been good or not) in terms of the advance of civilization. So when people talk today [about] whether disrupters are somehow new or by definition benign and not malign, I think [it] carries with it a range of assumptions.

Liberal democracies should always be open and wide enough to embrace new ideas and new technologies about how to do things better. But, subject them to proper deliberation through our proper democratic electoral processes as to whether they are sustainable to the country, the economy, and the world. There is no automatic good in disruption.

And finally, if we look at history, a minority of disrupters have been good governors but that is not necessarily essential. A disruption of one form or another can create a new set of political forces which others then rise to the challenge of leading. Take, for example, the history of the reformation—Luther was not a political figure. However, he gave rise to a large number of social, economic and political forces in Europe in the 16th century which flowed through to create the ground which was then tilled for the enlightenment. Was Luther a good governor all the way through? He certainly was a disrupter and if you believe in the enlightenment project, he was a positive disrupter. As for those in politics who believe themselves to be positive disruptors because of their ability to harness campaign technologies, it is utterly specious to claim that such a person by definition has a new form of politics or government which again delivers a greater benefit to the greatest number of people in the country, against any objective measure.

Well, on people who are tapping into this same anger against the establishment and are alienated from society – do you see any cracks in such a divide?

The core question of the disrupters is this—you can disrupt, but unless you are a political disruptor, capable of delivering real outcomes for the people who have supported or voted for your disruption, then it will come to nothing. The key challenges to ask those who are, as it were, professional manipulators of the political process to point out what’s wrong with the current order and why it needs to be replaced is to ask these questions: Replace what, with what and for what reason? And secondly, define how that is better or worse for people.

We should be very cautious about where that road takes us—in terms of long-term health of our democracies. If populists are elected to government and fail to deliver, do we then see the ultimate de-validation of the democratic project period rather than simply an intelligent mature retreat to the center?

And what do you believe?

Well, it isn’t so much as being predictive, I am an actor. I’m acting for the reformist center, for the liberal domestic and international project and racial inclusion. I’ve never taken the view that I’m a passive analyst. I can reflect, and I think that the current state of our liberal democracies is poor—I see the current challenges to our liberal democracies as being great, and I do not see the movements to the center yet capable of inventing a new reality of the center which re-includes those who have fallen outside the social contract without destroying the values of the center.

And do you think our institutions will be the last bastions of holding on to the liberal agenda?

All of our founding fathers and mothers had a view about institutional protections. However, the institutions can only take us so far. In history, institutions can be totally corrupt. The institutions of the Weimar state were taken over by the Nazis and the institutions continued to function as Nazi institutions and so there was nothing fail safe about them. That’s why the debates that we must have now [are] about our broad culture, about the broad universal values that underpin our cultures that have given rise to generations of young leaders—women and men of the future who can sustain those projects and enhance them across the world. That is, in my view, more important than simply relying almost defensively on pre-existing institutions to defend the polity against the assault of a given demagogue.

In fact, would you say that our faith in institutions was attacked—such as the financial systems or the church—that may have actually caused this divide? How have we come to a place where we have no clue of the news that the other side is consuming?

I think one of the core challenges of our democracy today is to ensure that there is a reinvestment in the public commons of communication. The technology and the market will take us in the exact reverse direction, towards increasing bifurcation. Increasing balkanization of everything that is a thousand media points, a thousand different audiences creating the warring tribes or rather the permanency of warring tribes.

It’s kind of what we had before the rise of the modern nation-state. The modern nation-state arose through the Germans and the Gutenberg Bible and the printing press in the 1460s, where suddenly you had the ability to communicate with one language to one people.

In my country of Australia, the critical role of public broadcasting remains essential and with a public institutional safeguard which prevents it from being politicized by one side or any side of politics against its own independent charter. That becomes one of the most critical fail safes for the future, because unless there is a common platform for discourse on any of these questions, then it will be a cocktail of Fox News trying to rip our heart out, followed by Breitbart.

And finally, any advice for our liberal readers?

The liberal international order is worth defending. And not just worth defending, it’s worth advancing. When we use the word defend, we’re already into a defensive posture. These are good universal values and we’ve only arrived at them relatively recently in history. I don’t think it’s smart to return to a period of barbarism to re-discover their value. 

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