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Kirsty Cockburn
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To Washington, where a few days ago, apparently the mind of Secretary - Sorry! Prime Minister Kevin Rudd - met the mind of US President Barack Obama. Afterwards the Oval Office must have been dripping with ideological compatibility and mutual admiration. George Bush's buddy, the 'Man of Steel', had been officially replaced by Barack Obama's 'soul-mate'. Seriously though, what does it all mean? Dateline asked the 'Washington Post's David Ignatius, one of Washington's most influential columnists and political insiders, who, it seems, has regular dialogue with K. Rudd, MP, PM.

GEORGE NEGUS: David, you have actually spoken to and written about Kevin Rudd. I mean, as American journalists go, that makes you a pretty rare bird. Looking at what you wrote, you are undoubtedly impressed. What actually impressed you about what Kevin Rudd had to say?

DAVID IGNATIUS, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, ‘THE WASHINGTON POST’: I first met Kevin Rudd at the home of the Australian ambassador to Washington, Dennis Richardson, before he was prime minister, actually, but when it seemed likely that he might win the election. The fast-ending part for me was Rudd's mastery of China. As a fluent Mandarin speaker, as a long-time analyst of Beijing, he had things to say about that country and its policies that were just at a level of sophistication that I hadn't heard even from professors, let alone from politicians. So we talked last weekend before he headed off on his trip to Washington. You know, what impressed me about him, to be honest, is he's a pretty darn smart guy. Definitely a cut above what we normally see here.

GEORGE NEGUS: Interesting. So we can blame you then for this political love tryst between him and Barack Obama. It is your fault?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I'll say that there is a way in which I think Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama are similar personalities. You can say that John Howard and George Bush had a special relationship - two kind of feisty guys who hit it off and remain close. Obama and Rudd are both pretty cool, intellectual-type guys. I think they each make their points in a very analytical way. The way to connect with them is intellectually and I am told that in the hour that they spent together with nobody else present that they really did connect. So I think this may end up being a relationship that is going to have legs, as we say, and I wouldn't be surprised if these two continue to talk, compare notes, especially about Asia, obviously, but probably about the whole range of problems.

GEORGE NEGUS: We cannot leave politics out of politics. I mean, they are ideological soul-mates in the same way that George Bush and John Howard were. We have got this curious ability to have a prime minister that politically is reading from the same hymn sheet as the American president.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I don't know whether we are following you or you are following us, but it does happen that we have gone from this Howard - John Howard to George Bush love-in to what seems to be a pretty warm relationship between Rudd and Obama. You know, American presidents need friends. It is a lonely job. And I think it is important when their leaders of their generation that they feel comfortable talking with - Bush in particular had that with Tony Blair, but he also had it with Howard. I think Obama is going to need that too. This is not a very experienced man that's in the Oval Office now.

GEORGE NEGUS: I guess you can say, that the 'Man of Steel', which is what George Bush labelled John Howard as, has been replaced by - I don't know what we describe Kevin Rudd as - the 'Man of Cool'?

DAVID IGNATIUS: The man of cool, the man of intellect, I think that the message that Kevin Rudd was bringing to Washington was that America is back and the world is really happy about that. When we talked, there was an almost palpable feeling that American rejoining of these global institutions - the American role in the G20 with Australia as a fellow member - really does mark a change from the Bush era, and in this global economic crisis, an especially welcome one. It's really this crisis, where Obama finds himself trying to steer this American supertanker in very rough waters, where they ended up, really I think, sharing a lot of ideas.

GEORGE NEGUS: But has it registered with the American public and the American media, apart from yourself? Do they even know he is around?

DAVID IGNATIUS: He hasn't made a big impact. I have to say Americans are pretty blase about foreign policy in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. I think in the foreign policy elite, the people who do actually pay attention to foreign policy, the visit has registered. Rudd saw not just Obama, but just about everybody who matters here. He saw the senior leadership, Republican and Democratic, on Capitol Hill, he saw Ben Bernanke, the chairman of Federal Reserve, he gave a speech at a prominent think-tank, you know, he rang all the bells. So, the average American? No, they were not aware of it, don't care about it, doesn't matter to them. But I think to the elite, that follows these things, yeah, I think that it was a visit that made the difference.

GEORGE NEGUS: Next week, of course, both Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama are off to London to the G20. They will obviously be trying to work together, I'd say, from what Barack Obama is saying.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Yes, I think there are two key points of commonality between Rudd and Obama that they will bring to London, to the G20 meeting. One is that they both agree that it is crucial for all major economies to stimulate domestic demand, to spend the billions of dollars that the US is spending. Australia obviously has a much smaller stimulus package, but it is committed to stimulus. The worry is that if we have the US in this wild spending binge, running multi-trillion-dollar deficits to get its economy going back again, we will end up with a reprise of the unbalanced global economy that we have had before, which got us into trouble. That is something that I talked with Kevin Rudd about. He sees this as a problem. He knows it is a danger. I think maybe he is going to try to work on some of the Europeans in London at the G20 meeting and make sure they are committed to stimulus.

The second major issue for Rudd, and I think Obama really embraced this, is the importance of bringing China in as a full partner in global governance. For me, that's what this G20 meeting will symbolise - China's arrival as a manager, co-partner, in this enterprise. The G8 basically is finished - the G8 is so Europe-centric, excluding China, excluding India, excluding Australia - Imagine that! - it is really being replaced by the G20.

GEORGE NEGUS: Is that possibly what Barak Obama has spotted in Kevin Rudd? The fact that he is a Sinologist. I mean, we went right over the top. He is one of the smartest China watchers you have met anywhere, you said. Is he likely, therefore, to become Obama's confidant?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I think down the road when there are major issues involving China, it is likely that Obama will turn to Rudd and get his opinion. The tough foreign policy issue they talked the most about, outside economics, was Afghanistan. I am told they talked about that in some detail. Rudd assured him "We are in for the long haul, Mr President, we are with you." But this has really been a tough one for Obama because he has had a real battle within his administration between people who want a whole lot more troops and people who would like a minimalist mission just to focus on al-Qaeda.

GEORGE NEGUS: It is a tough one for Kevin Rudd as well because 65% of people in this country don't want us to increase our troop involvement in Afghanistan. If Obama asks him to increase the troops, Rudd's in trouble.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Obama is going to ask all of the partners to increase their commitment in Afghanistan, but not necessarily military. And so it may be that we'll be looking for Australian agricultural experts. I don't know, but it is not just a question of troops.

GEORGE NEGUS: So, generally speaking, you'd say it augurs well for US-Australian relations that politically and personally Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd are obviously soul-mates?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I think early in a president's term, any president makes relationships that end up being important through his term in office. We have seen that with every president that I have covered - certainly was clear with George Bush and Tony Blair, John Howard. It was a short list, but those relationships mattered to him. And I think that other leaders that Obama has met with, my sense is that he and Rudd have gotten along better than the other fellows that he has met.

GEORGE NEGUS: I guess we have to wait and see whether or not the rest of the world, particularly the other 18 at the G20, take as much notice of Kevin Rudd as Barack Obama seems to be doing.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Sometimes in that group, being noticed, as being friendly with the United States, is a real liability, so watch it. You do not want to be too friendly. But I think Rudd is going to be a player in London and this is a first chance for most Americans to take a look at your Prime Minister. At least in his foreign policy elite, people came away thinking, smart guy, a lot to say, and we are interested that he and Obama seemed to have clicked.

GEORGE NEGUS: We have become Obama watchers in the last few months of our lives. It is lovely to meet and talk to a Rudd watcher. David, thanks for that, and we will talk again, no doubt.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Great, thank you, George.