In a suburb of one of the world's most isolated cities, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wants you to know that he feels your pain to a point. A bedroom community of Perth, Western Australia, Cockburn until recently shared in the buoyant growth rates that turned this part of the southern continent into a giant construction zone. No more. As Australia's great mining boom deflated due to slackening demand from China and the global recession, the region around Cockburn saw unemployment go from 2.1% last October to 7.2% in April. Roughly a year and a half after his victory over longtime conservative Prime Minister John Howard, Rudd dutifully rattles through what his Labor Party will do for this hurting community. But he also regales the audience with tales from the G-20 meeting earlier this year in London, where world leaders debated how to fix the global economy. U.S. President Barack Obama, the Prime Minister confides, borrowed an analogy of Rudd's in his speech, while President Hu Jintao of China chatted with him in Mandarin. As Rudd reveals his foreign exploits, the crowd shifts; attentions wander. The Aboriginal elder who kicked off the event with a traditional welcome ceremony lets his eyelids droop.
With the bland looks of a small-town accountant and an even blander style of oratory, Rudd, 51, doesn't fit the typical mold of an Australian man of action. A former diplomat and veteran technocrat, he often seems more comfortable roaming the international halls of power than pressing the flesh with laid-off workers or drought-stricken farmers in the Outback. Rudd is the consummate globalized citizen, and makes a point of reaching out to those in other nations who share his sense of international community. "He'll put in a full day in the Parliament and then, because of the time difference, call world leaders way into the night," says Michael Fullilove, director of the global-issues program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Rudd's late-night conversations, one presumes, turn on his conviction that if his nation of 21 million people is to confront the triple challenge of recession, climate change and a rapidly changing cultural identity, it must in turn recognize a triple reality that the modern world is interconnected, that each country's challenges are similar and that they can only be tackled by nations acting in unison, not in isolation.
Its geographic remoteness notwithstanding, Australia deserves watching. As both a long and loyal ally of the U.S., and at the same time a nation whose economy increasingly depends on a partnership with China, it has a chance to show the rest of the world the importance of maintaining good relations with both the new century's superpowers. Rudd has positioned himself as the man to pull off that trick.
The Prime Minister's political connection to the U.S. is obvious enough. Like Barack Obama, he's a bit of a geek, a churchgoing centrist liberal who immerses himself in policy detail, chatting fluently on everything from grants for first-time homeowners to the state of broadband connectivity in Australia. But he's familiar with China, too: Rudd speaks fluent Mandarin the only non-Chinese world leader to boast this linguistic achievement and in an interview with TIME he rattled through the biographies of some of China's lesser-known Cabinet members. If Rudd can navigate warm and friendly relations with both the U.S. and China, he will turn out to be a politician of more than local significance. And he's going to try. "I'm in the business of making a difference," he told TIME during a rare pause between meetings on a flight from Perth to Melbourne. "There's no point in being here for being here. In the grand tradition of Australians, we believe in having a go."