Senator Bob Carr. Photo: Penny Bradfield
BOB Carr is about to step into a job interview, even though it's nearly two months since Julia Gillard appointed him Australia's Foreign Minister. Carr is in Washington and the Americans are taking a careful look at the new bloke, assessing how well he will perform. He meets with Hillary Clinton today and then gives a speech tomorrow on ''Australia, the US and the rise of the Asia Pacific''. He will be given every chance to impress - because so far, Carr has underwhelmed.
Not that anyone from the Obama administration would say so directly, but in their polite style of diplomacy, an initial US anxiety about Carr can be detected in the lavish and continuing praise for his predecessor, Kevin Rudd.
The administration's key official with a watch on Asia, Kurt Campbell, has gone out of his way in recent weeks to describe Rudd's ''remarkable'' and ''enormous'' influence in Washington's policy-making circles. ''Probably no one's had a bigger impact on how we work in the Asia-Pacific region in the last couple of years than Kevin Rudd,'' Campbell said this month.
We liked Rudd, appears to be the subtle message to Carr. Be like him - even if you have a different style.
Rudd's frenetic work habits kept him in regular and direct contact with US Secretary of State Clinton, not only on the summit circuit, but in other ways not always obvious to the public or even the diplomats from both countries. He wrote her letters on topics such as the political transformation in Burma, developments in China, to upheaval in the Arab world. At least one of those made it to the desk of the Oval Office. Influence in Washington is judged by access to the President.
Rudd's technocratic command of detail and his fluency in the jargon-laden, think-tank inspired language of modern diplomacy was welcomed as an alternative source of advice for an America that often feels under siege. That didn't mean Rudd's counsel was followed. But it was read.
Australia is not automatically accorded such influence with the US. The personality of the players matter, and with Rudd's resignation, this latest phase in the relationship came to an end. Carr stepped into the void.
Carr spoke with Clinton by phone in the hours after being sworn in. A couple of weeks later, Campbell was dispatched for a trip to Australia. Make of the timing what you will, but accounts of the call suggest Clinton was left somewhat bemused by the conversation.
Carr came to the job with great passion for international affairs, but an academic's interest and no practical experience. He has chirped away like a butcher's magpie since taking on his new job, and, despite a stuff-up or two, is a proven communicator.
But in substantive terms, he is yet to really say much. Carr's hackneyed warnings of a ''clash of civilisations'' replays a debate from the 1990s that got a moderate boost after September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but has very little traction as policy. No extremists have ever been turned away from violence by interfaith dialogues or other talkfests, while positing the problem as one between ''civilisations'' gives a tiny minority of militants far too much credit. Carr's other pet concern - chemical changes to the oceans brought about by global warming - is doubtless important, but located more at the boutique end of the agenda.
Australia's influence is judged by the quality of its ideas. Carr has plenty, on the changing power dynamics in Asia, for instance, and what this means for the US. Yet many of these have seemingly been suppressed out of caution. Carr has friends in the US and no one wanted to see him caught out in the Washington shark pond in his first official outing. The evaluation of Carr the Foreign Minister will be far sharper than that of a private citizen and former state premier obsessed by American Civil War history.
So Campbell met with him over breakfast in Sydney on a Friday in late March. It was a frank discussion. Campbell laid it all out over a couple of hours - what the US was doing in the region, the mistakes it had made and what it hoped to achieve. He told Carr about the Rudd letters and explained what the US saw as his privileged access, suggesting Carr could aim for the same rather than the more orthodox ties.
This does not appear to have been a warning to stay on message, even after Carr demanded the threat of force be taken off the table around Iran's nuclear program, directly contracting Barack Obama. Nor was it a reaction to Carr's past comments on the US paranoia about China's rise, ''the world's most insecure empire, always imagining its enemies at work to bring it down''. Instead, it was an invitation to offer constructive guidance for US policy.
Carr should have the courage to take it on - even at the cost of delivering unpleasant news.
Daniel Flitton is a senior correspondent.
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