Can Abbott match Rudd’s close rapport with Obama?


The United States expects smooth relations with Australian Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott, but it remains to be seen if he can match his predecessor’s good rapport with President Barack Obama.

Abbott, a conservative who was born in London and has spoken of the importance of the “Anglosphere,” led his coalition to victory over the Labor Party of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat and China expert.

Rudd, who faced criticism over his style and his party’s internecine fighting, was arguably one of the foreign leaders closest to the usually reserved Obama.

Kurt Campbell, who was the State Department’s top official on East Asia during Obama’s first term, said that Rudd left “almost ocean-vessel-size shoes to be filled” in helping the United States think strategically.

“Despite personal foibles and a complex relationship in Australia, I think in many respects Kevin Rudd has been the most important strategic thinker in Asia in the last generation,” said Campbell, a key force in Obama’s “pivot” toward a greater U.S. focus on Asia.

Rudd may have had more influence in shaping Washington’s policies in Asia than any foreigner since modern Singapore’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, during the Vietnam War era, Campbell told a conference. “He helped us join the East Asia Summit, he helped us think about the fact that the defining feature of modern international relations is China’s arrival on the global scene and every aspect of our diplomacy has to be re-created and re-crafted with that in mind.”

Campbell was quick to say that America expects to work well with Abbott. Australia is one of the oldest U.S. allies and has joined Washington in every major war, including the conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam.

Obama and Abbott, in a telephone call after the election, shared concerns about Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

Officials said that Obama and Abbott also discussed moving ahead with a 2011 plan for Washington to move more than 2,500 U.S. Marines to the northern city of Darwin by 2016-17, perhaps the most visible Australian support for the pivot to Asia. Ernie Bower, the Southeast Asia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it was possible that the United States and Australia would expand the Darwin troop plan, as it enjoys widespread support.

Climate change is one area where, at least in the abstract, Obama and Abbott do not agree.

Abbott has pledged to scrap a carbon tax imposed by the previous government and, like many U.S. conservatives, has voiced doubt about the science behind climate change.

The last prime minister from Abbott’s Liberal Party, John Howard, had been then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s primary ally in opposing the Kyoto Protocol, which required rich countries to curb emissions.