Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: Australian Foreign Policy

Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment

Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment  by Clare O’Neil, Tim Watts Oneil_Watts_two_futures

A few weeks ago, Australia’s Minister for Arts gave a lovely little speech about books and politicians as writers. In it he said:

“The current crop of my Federal Parliamentary colleagues has produced a superabundance of books. Admittedly, most belong either to the category of rather dull and worthy policy blueprints for Australia’s future, of the kind rising backbenchers are wont to write to advertise their intellectual wares; or memoirs of the “where did it all go so wrong – it certainly wasn’t my fault” variety”.

Given the timing, I suspect Brandis had Two Futures in mind with this line. For all the proliferation of blame sharing memoirs —particularly from the previous government— there are very few real policy blueprints around. Mark Latham made his name by writing them, and Cory Bernardi has tried the same — though I regret reading the former, and won’t read the latter.

Two Futures by Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts is therefore to be welcomed as a relatively rare break from the pack. Both were elected in 2013, but are already well regarded by insiders. Their book justifies that by trying to think through six big issues Australia must manage: Democracy, Inequality, Technology, Climate, (Economic) Growth, and The World.

Wisely the authors avoid prediction —save for a slightly odd concluding chapter which contrasts two futures —and focus on the key trends in operation today. They try and gather a reasonable factual basis and look ahead to what this might mean for the country in 2040. In turn they set some general policy principles to help take advantage of the opportunities and alleviate the challenges.

The simple fact that economic growth and foreign/defence policies were included as standalone chapters should be strongly applauded. Most Labor/left policy books I’ve encountered downplay these topics. Indeed many party figures would rather never talk about these issues, seeing them as unwinnable for the left, lacking any vote changing issues, and less appealing than safe ground like health or education. I think such a view is both cowardly and wrong, so I’m glad to see O’Neil and Watt face these issues directly.

The foreign and defence policy chapter* starts with a largely standard analysis of the trends. But its conclusion that we should think of Australia as a Southeast Asian power is something I strongly agree with, and very much welcome as a contribution to the debate. I suspect many in the public will like it as well.

The economics chapter however felt like it was the most difficult for the authors to write. It’s more descriptive, the arguments less well connected, the policy prescriptions less specific. There are more appeal for independent experts —especially the Productivity Commission— to provide the answers via reviews and reports. The chapter also quickly moves onto issues of education and participation. The authors embrace the liberalisation of the economy over the last thirty years as fundamental to national prosperity, but where it goes next is not really engaged head on.

The stand out chapter for me in many ways was on Democracy, which I think addressed some quite fundamental issues in a frank and honest way. It also offered the most innovative and specific of the policy proposals in the book. The climate and inequality chapters were interesting mostly for their different tone. Both try to look at the opportunities and get perspective on the challenges. This is a welcome break from the moralising, pessimistic admonition that for many on the left is their standard rhetorical approach. It also helps that these chapters in particular and the book overall is well written with some clever turns of phrase.

Our now former Minister for Arts might be right to note the way such books are often used to help advance careers more than debate. But Two Futures is a book that seems genuinely interested in ideas, and one where the authors have done their homework, drawing from scholarly material and reports to develop those ideas. For this reason, the sheer exercise alone strikes me as something to be encouraged, whatever the merits of any individual chapters or policy proposals. If more backbenchers took up the task, Australia’s future in 2040 would look far brighter indeed.

*Disclaimer – I had a chat to Tim about the production of the World chapter, though the ideas and arguments in it are entirely his and Clare’s.

Dependent Ally: A Study In Australian Foreign Policy

Dependent Ally: A Study In Australian Foreign Policy by Coral BellBell_Dependent Ally

One lesson I have come to learn in my brief time in academia is that it is not wise to just try and write ‘about’ a subject, with the hope the argument or insights will come later. There’s often a pressure to contribute your name to the current debates, but unless you really have something to say, the result is often more generic, less engaging and less memorable than you’d hope.

This was my surprising reaction to Coral Bell’s Dependent Ally: A Study in Australian Foreign Policy. Widely regarded as the classic work on the alliance, I got the feeling reading it that Bell wanted to write about the alliance (having done so indirectly for much of her career), but didn’t really have anything urgent to say.

The title of the book suggests a demonstration of Australia’s reliance on the UK and US. That is a theme, but it’s assumed as much as argued. Typical of Bell though, this book contains an original take on the issue. Rather than identify the cause of Australia’s dependence in a psychological need for security as the Left argues, Bell places it in the global lot of middle powers in a hierarchical world. Australia contributes to the global balance of power via its connection to the large states.

This asymmetry she seems to argue is inescapable while also far less harmful than many on the left presume. It’s not that the dependence doesn’t exist — as scholars such as David McLean or pundits like Greg Sheridan have argued — but rather it is somewhat harmless. She seems to find it far less interesting than noting internal changes in Australia, an evolution of ideas about its region, identity and capacity. There are occasional moments —1942 & 1963— where dependence emerges but it quickly returns to the comfortable, albeit unbalanced, norm of a smaller country making its own way in the world.

Dependent Ally does a solid job of covering the big debates, drawing out the nationalist threads of rejection, setting in context the moments of followership and poking holes in the common myths of the day — For instance the historical record is clear that Australia pushed the US to deal with Vietnam, a threat of much more direct concern for Canberra than D.C, rather than the other way around.

The final chapter is worth a read in its own right, though all the insights there — the importance of personality to the alliance’s health, the economic and social benefits Australia has gained from migration—seem somewhat unconnected to the historical cataloguing that preceded it. As such, I was left uncertain of what Bell was trying to say. There’s not enough scholarly scrupulousness or punditry passion to really define the book. Bell is consistently engaging, but at a lower altitude than many of her best works. The problem may simply be that of time. The book was published in 1988, and we know far more these days, with much richer archival and historical material to draw on.

Virtually everything written on Australian foreign policy at some point engages with the country’s relationship with the UK and US. In my recent review of the literature substantially on the ANZUS alliance I found more than 350 entries (and I’m still counting). It was perhaps inevitable then that Bell, a fantastic commentator on US policy in the Cold War would turn to how to look at how Washington’s policy has shaped her own country of Australia.

This is probably still the best one volume treatment of Australia’s relationships with its great and powerful friends. But I’d rather read books that either trace one single thread, like David Lowe’s biography of Percy Spender, or that reveal a particular moment in fresh detail, as James Curran does in ‘Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at war’ (review coming soon).

Trying to say it all, and writing ‘about’ a topic, often means saying nothing much at all. Or not really making clear what you want to say. Either way, this was a surprisingly disappointing read. Though my admiration of Coral in the pantheon of great Australian contributors to the study of world affairs remains firm.

Australian Between Empires: The Life of Percy Spender

Australian Between Empires: The Life of Percy Spender  by David Lowe Lowe - Spender

Bob Carr’s central complaint during his time as Foreign Minister (my review of his Diary here) was not the travel, food or company, but a lack of time. 18 months was too short to do anything he moaned. Percy Spender had just 16 months and was the most influential Australian Foreign Minister of the 20th century.

Spender is something of a forgotten figure in Australian history. This is partly because his time at the top was so short, but also because his story runs against the dominant narrative of his era. We think of the Menzies reign as British, cautious and somewhat lethargic. Spender was none of these things.

In this highly readable — albeit academic — biography, David Lowe illuminates a figure who is brash, bold and innovative. Spender was willing to take risks, worked at racehorse pace (often managing a federal parliamentary seat and significant caseload at the NSW bar) and challenged many of the fundamental ideas of his time.

Spender belongs to a significant, though minority school of foreign policy in Australia: The rationalists. This is not to claim a super intelligence. Rather he was guided less by tradition, culture or national pride and more by a nose for where the big geopolitical trends were taking his country and a willingness to embrace them.

Out of his wide reading and early embrace of air travel (allowing multiple quick trips at a time when his Prime Minister still took a month to sail to England) Spender helped form two of the pillars of current Australian foreign policy.

Most famously, he cemented an alliance with the United States, securing something that half a century of Australian leaders such as Deakin, Lyons, Curtin and Evatt had only talked about. This was a singular feat, given the deep reticence in both Washington D.C and Canberra for any such pact. Such was the importance of this relationship, Spender jumped from Foreign Minister to Ambassador to America to help cement the ties beyond what the legal framework assured.

Spender also helped to push and drag a reluctant Australian government towards embracing Asia. As Menzies once mocked him lightly in a cabinet meeting ‘Come on Percy lets have your thesis about Southeast Asia’. While many saw the coming Cold War as requiring Australia to return forces to the Middle East or Europe, Spender helped keep the focus on Asia and combatting Asian communism.

His main achievement in this direction was the Colombo plan. Often seen today as merely a form of student exchange (as its namesake today embodies), it was part of a far grander effort to help build and develop Southeast Asia as a bulwark against communism and as a neighbourly gesture of service to integrate Australia and the developed world into the developing one.

Spender had hopes of becoming Prime Minister, but he never seems to have gotten very close to the big chair. When all hope was extinguished in 1951 his energy soon turned away from federal politics. After just 1 year and 128 days as Foreign Minister (along with Treasurer in the 1939-40 government and member of the War Cabinet and Advisory War Council for the length of the Second World War) he left.

After that he spent seven happy years as Australian Ambassador to the United States and nine less successful years on the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He was and remains the first and only Australian appointee and spent three years as President and chief justice.

We should not be surprised that Spender’s story is unknown today. Most Australian foreign policy history is. To those on the left anything before Gough or even Keating is dismissed as cringe worthy dependence. To those on the right, only two relationships mattered, the UK then US and anything else was somewhat pointless and a waste of time. Spender’s story however shows that there is much to be proud of, and nothing to take for granted in the evolution and development of Australia’s approach to international affairs.

The revival in the last few years of interest in Spender’s story is important not just to overcome a historical ignorance. Spender’s actions matter because his, like our own, was a time of change and transition. He cut through because he was prepared to assess the big changes and push, negotiate, bargain, bully and dream about where and how his country could succeed. Such ambitions and innovations are needed again today, and time once again, is not on our side.

A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond The 1990s

A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond The 1990s by Ross BabbageBabbage - coast too long

Like most of my generation I grew up watching Bush Tucker Man. A fun show, with a serious purpose: working out how do defend Australia. While Les Hiddins was the khaki front man, it was the geek squad like Ross Babbage who made the idea a reality.

It might seem a simple idea ‘design your forces to defend the country’ but putting it into practice requires a lot of thought. Especially in a country as big and diverse as Australia. While Hiddins looked at gathering ‘tucker’, Babbage and others looked at the tides, winds, bridges, population centres, and tried to work out how they could help national strategy and force structure.

It is strange to some today, but during the Cold War Australians held a real fear of invasion. We’ve largely discarded that concern now (See the Lowy Poll 2015), but by reading books like this, you can see how authentic such concerns were.

Intriguingly, the two main worries in ‘A Coast too Long’ are ones Australia no longer worries about. The first is nuclear war, a threat that still exists but it is understandable why most of the concern faded with the end of the Cold War.
The second is low-level conflict, a scenario where small groups of elite forces run around the northern territory damaging vital equipment. Think Konfrontasi in Kakadu. This was a real animating concern for much of the 1970s and 1980s, though many debated how to respond.

If just low level coercion, it would be very difficult to get allied support. Likewise Australia’s escalation options would be limited. A conventional strike against the opponents population or resources could seem disproportionate and shift international perceptions of who was the aggressor.

It’s somewhat strange to see such concern, given its absence from contemporary debates. Yet it’s not clear why it’s not a concern. We might think a modern Indonesia wouldn’t engage in such action, but if national relations really degraded (such as if Australia and Indonesia ended up on different sides of a second Cold War), it’s quite plausible.

Another fascinating area is the section looking at the strategic importance of Christmas Islands and Cocos Islands. While neither is worth wholescale defence, they add a lot to current defence capability (increasingly so in an era of autonomous drone equipment).

This is necessarily a book for the scholars and defence nerds. But there’s a lot to learn in this book about the geography of Australia. Just as Bush Tucker man showed the diversity of the top end on the micro scale, there are dozens of maps in ‘A Coast Too Long’ which show the intriguing nature of the country on the macro scale.

It seems that with the 2015 Defence White Paper, Australia is slowly moving away from the Defence of Australia concept. This seems the right direction, but work such as that by scholars like Babbage, Ball, Langtry and others will remain vital if we ever need to defend this long long coast.

Winning the Peace: Australia’s campaign to change the Asia-Pacific

I’m delighted to announce the release of my next book, ‘Winning the Peace: Australia’s campaign to change the Asia-Pacific‘, published by Melbourne University Press.



Winning the Peace seeks to explore and explain how Australian governments, during the modern period of Australia’s engagement with Asia (from 1983 till today), have attempted to use their defence and foreign policies to shape the region. While there were certainly times of tension during this period, such as the spikes around the end of the Cold War and during the early years of the War on Terror, the region has been largely defined by peace. Because of this peace and thanks to Australia’s relative size as a ‘middle power’, the government’s attempt to change how other states act and think was not sought through the deployment or use of force but through military and diplomatic engagement and persuasion.

Australia’s smaller size meant it had to be strategic in its efforts. It had to determine which changes were priorities, it had to re-organise and develop its resources, it had to deploy them effectively and efficiently, and it had to be able to sustain the effort in the face of competition and rejection. This book focuses on the three main ‘campaigns’ the Australian government has undertaken since the early 1980s to reshape the Asia-Pacific in pursuit of its national interests.

Table of contents

1  Introduction
2 Conceptual Framework
3 History of Australian Foreign and Defence Policy
4 Australia and Irregular Migration
5 Australia and Weapons of Mass Destruction
6 Australia and Trade Liberalisation
7 Can Middle Powers Promote Norms?
8 Conclusion

Where to buy the book?, Random House, Booktopia, etc. Best to order online, paperback or e-book copies available.


To mark the launch, I’ll be writing some guest posts on The Lowy Interpreter blog, and having a launch at Parliament House. Full details will be published here shortly.

Tony Abbot’s Foreign Policy Speech

Tony Abbott is a smart man, but he has something of the the optimists essential flaw of believing there is no trade off between outcomes for different policy options. In his book Battlelines he advocates free market economics and big spending social conservatism without ever noting that they could contradict. Likewise in his speech today for the Lowy Institute, he takes inspiration from the Howard government to argue that Australia should actively promote its values overseas, (and that this is intimately linked to our national security) however he then uses a standard realist framework to reject almost every action of the Keating & Rudd governments as a waste of resources in favour of utopian ideals.

Take this key quote early on in the speech:

There was the massive aid and relief effort to Indonesia in the wake of the East Asian tsunami. All of these were evidence of Australia‟s determination to be a force for good in the wider world and resolve not to leave to others the high task of working for the betterment of mankind wherever we could lend a helping hand….The Howard Government appreciated that Australia‟s national interest could not be pursued oblivious to the big issues of the wider world. It understood, as I‟m sure the Rudd Government does too, that Australia has a clear interest in advancing freedom and decency and in eradicating poverty. One country can hardly transform the planet but, especially in our immediate region, we have a particular obligation to conduct our national security policies consistently with our values. Australia‟s recent work in East Timor not only exemplifies this approach but also illustrates how perceptions of our international role have changed. This would have been a mission inconceivable in the period from Whitlam to Keating, when we were much more equivocal about standing up for our values on the global stage.

While there was a rhetorical shift from the late 1990’s where the Howard Government talked of selling Australian values, while the Keating Government talked about supporting universal values (that were not coincidently also Australian values), at a more fundamental level Abbott’s statement is hard to justify. Leaving East Timor aside for the moment, the previous Hawke-Keating government was consistently attacked by the Coalition for spending too much time promoting “values” overseas, rather than focusing on core national security. The Hawk-Keating Government made the promotion of Australian values central to its foreign policy. It secured restrictions on chemical weapons, launched a major anti-nuclear proliferation campaign, played a fundamental role in the resolution of a peaceful, and eventually democratic government in Cambodia, developed Cairns and APEC to promote free trade, lead & achieved a ban on mining in Antarctica, and Hawke played a big role in getting the Commonwealth to act to overturn apartheid in South Africa. Phew! No wonder Howard came to office promising a ‘relaxed and comfortable’ style of government in response.

So then is Abbott suggesting these acts were not supporting Australian values? While he is clearly trying to be bipartisan in including Fraser in his attack, his comments seem less about partisanship than simply not knowing/ommitting the history. As an aside all the examples he praises seem to involve military troops at work, are they the only tool Australia can use to promote it’s values?. Though quickly after the above quote there is also the equivocation by Abbott that (when speaking about Iraq & Afghanistan) “In neither intervention was Australia seeking to “export democracy” although the removal of abhorrent regimes necessitated the establishment of freer and fairer societies. So was Howard creating a new tradition of activism to support Australian values or was he following a traditional Australian realist path ?(As for East Timor, Howard did the right thing when the opportunity came to promote an independent East Timor arose after Suharto left power in 1998. Before then he followed the same path as his predecessors, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke & Keating. Australia reacted to help secure East Timor’s independence, it is flat out wrong to suggest we initiated their independence.)

Yet despite this priority in favour of values, Abbott takes a standard realist line when it comes to Rudd’s activism:

it‟s hard to see much taxpayer value in the Rudd Government‟s anti-nuclear and Security Council membership campaigns. Over this year and next, the Government is spending $9.2 million to promote nuclear disarmament, much of which will be spent on the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) which Mr Rudd set up in 2008. Of course, anything Gareth Evans and his fellow Commission members could do to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea would be welcome. That prospect, though, seems unlikely and, meanwhile, the Commission uses taxpayer dollars to promote the improbable notion of a world free of nuclear weapons. It‟s largely a replay of the Keating Government‟s futile Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. A Coalition government would re-consider whether this body makes any useful contribution to Australia‟s non-proliferation objectives.

Abbott’s last sentence “Australia’s non-proliferation objectives” seem an endorsement of the goal, but he regards the Canberra Commission as futile and the new ICNND little better. Yet Australia really doesn’t have many other good options if it is to actually pursue such an objective. Abbott shouldn’t be expected to have read the ICNND (I havn’t fully!), but his Foreign Minister & advisors ought to know that the idea of a nuclear free world is a very minor part of a report whose main focus is on action in 2010 and through till 2020. Likewise Abbott correctly notes that the Howard Government, like Rudd today, made a bid for a UN seat (he deserves brownie points for leaving this in) however he derides it as “all for an uncertain purpose other than a nebulous sense of temporarily enhanced international status”. Surely if Australia is to ensure we are not “oblivious to the big issues of the wider world” and going to link our national security interests with our values a UN seat is a valuable opportunity to do so.

While the opposition is unlikely to try and use foreign policy as part of their election campaign, there are two differences between Rudd & Abbott where I think Abbott has the better position: First Abbott should be applauded for calling for the Rudd government to increase its troops in Afghanistan if only to take responsibility for our own security in the Oruzgan province. Secondly, Abbott rightly chides the Rudd government for its refusal to sell uranium to India. Though this is offput by the claim that: ‘The Obama Government in America has accepted that India could not sign the NPT (because it possesses nuclear weapons)’. In fact all five security council nuclear states, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China, have signed the NPT. Possessing nuclear weapons doesn’t prevent you signing, but rather not accepting the verification & audit process. Still Abbott should be applauded as India is a careful, non-proliferating country and selling uranium to India is not only good business, but will help patch over an important but troubled relationship between our two countries.

As The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen notes, this was a ‘safe’ speech which seemed largely dedicated to defending the Howard government. Very rarely did Abbott venture to say how a Coalition government would do things differently to Rudd, and where he did, it was entirely in line with Howard’s previous choices. Pleasantly this seems to have lent the speech a positive tone (at least in the reading), with Abbott almost unwilling to criticize Rudd. Certainly the harsher lines of his foreign affairs ministers were absent. And to his great credit, he actually tackled foreign policy issues, instead of just using the speech to talk about boat people (as happened while Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was present in the House of Representatives).

It’s great to see Abbott finally talking about foreign policy and security issues, and I recommend everyone interested takes the few minutes to read it in full. But you can sense his discomfort with some of the material, and the inherent contradiction between wanting an Australia that involves itself in global issues and promotes its values, while denigrating anything that goes beyond a cautious realist framework is never addressed. Like Howard in 1995 or George Bush in 2000, you can win office without a strong background in foreign policy, but both men quickly appointed expert advisors to help them through it. That act of delegation, rather than knowing the unner details of the NPT treaty will be the real test of Abbott’s leadership in foreign policy in the lead up to the 2010 election.

Update: Peter Hartcher stresses that now both parties are committed to promoting values ie norm entrepreneurship, while Danniel Flitton argues Abbott’s talk of an anglosphere is outdated and presents a false choice between bilateral and multilateral ties.

What is the Coalition’s foreign policy?

There is a good piece in this mornings Canberra Times (no online copy) by the up & coming Australian academic Carl Ungerer arguing that the debate about foreign policy has effectively been forgotten, with even the arguments about boat people reduced to simply questions of Australian control, without international or regional reference.

Ungerer lays much of the blame for this at the feet of the Liberal Party, and it’s a fair cop. A look at the National Security page on the Liberal party homepage is almost exclusively focused on immigration and border protection (against migrants). Likewise when the President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke before the Australian Parliament, the only topic the leader of the Opposition raised was that of asylum seekers. Obviously Indonesia is critical to that question, but issues such as when Indonesia will pass laws criminalising people smuggling (as the Howard government convinced much of the region to do in 2002-2006) were entirely absent.

The media must also wear some blame, given the way they let economics crowd out all other issues. Economics is critical, but every Australian government since time immemorial has said national security is the primary role of government.

While a February Newspoll showed that the Rudd government was slightly behind on national security, the latest Essential Report (PDF) presents a very different story) when people are asked specifically about foreign policy (H/T Crikey):

The Prime Minister scores strongly in terms of approval of his handling of foreign relations, with 50% approving and 32% disapproving, although the result tends to follow party lines. Labor also holds a strong lead (41-27%) over the Coalition in terms of who is trusted more on handling foreign affairs, with 22% saying no difference — suggesting the Howard Government’s strong record on foreign relations and national security has faded from memory…. Voters’ responses on individual countries also suggests why the Government has developed a strong reputation on foreign affairs. Asked how important relations with a number of countries were, 59% said close relations with the United States were very important, 56% said New Zealand and 51% said China. While the Rudd Government has had difficulties in its relationship with Beijing, it has also been associated with increased Chinese investment and the Prime Minister’s personal connections with the country. Rudd also quickly established a good relationship with President Obama, especially through the GFC and the establishment of the G20 as the primary international economic grouping.Moreover, 33% of voters actually want Australia to have a closer relationship with China

One explanation for this shift may be the loss of Malcolm Turnbull who had a much more worldly image than the more parochial Abbott, but primarily it seems the mere fact Rudd brings both experience and gets to daily implement foreign policy (even if commentators are only giving him about a B+), along with the noted gap in interest let alone policy by the opposition which have lead to this clear result. Labor will also be hoping that with Fitzgibbon’s resignation from Defence fading, and recent changes to slow the influx of boat people will further cement their dominance.

The only really odd part is that with such dominance and the coalition showing no ability to fight back, why isn’t Rudd doing even more to attack the coalition on such issues. Obviously he ought not go as far as Keating did to Howard in 1996 by claiming Asia wont work with Abbott, but he can suggest that only he would be able to extract the most benefit for Australia from our regional links due to his stronger knowledge of the region.

Meanwhile, Rudd is far from bulletproof on this. He hasn’t -yet-dedicated the resources to the role he has endorsed for Australia as a ‘creative middle power’, and his goals sometimes clash, His desire to stop whaling has hurt the relationship with the Japanese, which is crucial to help his vision of a new Asia Pacific Community; meanwhile his relationship with China is even harder due to his attempt to earn a UN seat. These are worthy goals, but his overall competence could be challenged. Let’s hope Abbott & Bishops policy boffins are paying attention and writing a policy displaying at least some level of overall strategic thought to deliver prior to the election (And with the highly capable former International Relations academic Senator Russel Trood in their ranks its a crime the Coalition has been so woeful and quiet on foreign policy issues). But they’ll need to hurry as time is surely running out and public perceptions solidifying.

The Big Man game: Obama, Healthcare and his Foreign Policy

One of the most long running debates in International Relations is known as the Agent/Structure Problem. It is perhaps best summed up by a famous Marx quote that “People make History, but not in conditions of their own choosing“. Which of these was more important inquiring minds wanted to know. Could great individuals through sheer strength of will and character change the globe, or do conditions need to be right not only to birth & shape the history makers, but to give them space in which to act. In short, what is more important, the agents or the structure in which they operate? This isn’t just a debate about theory, how you answer this question and your assumptions, will drive both both what, and how you study history and International Relations. In the wake of Obama’s health care victory we have to very good examples of authors disagreeing over this fundamental point:

First up Andrew Sullivan, batting for the Agent side (if that sounds a little Matrix-like to you, fear not, individuals or groups are known as ‘Agents’ in International Relations jargon)

“In Barack Obama’s agonising, year-long effort to pass universal health insurance, the latest bump in the road may seem trivial, and the president must surely hope the Indonesians don’t take it personally. At the last minute, he cancelled his trip to the place he grew up in. The visit was actually of great personal importance to him and a critical part of his message that America and a moderate Islam can and will get along.

But he also knows that his clout abroad depends on his success at home. The linkage matters. There is a connection between healthcare reform and the war on terror, and between relations with China and the entire Obama narrative…… A presidency failing at home only undermines Obama abroad. Dmitry Medvedev knows this as he negotiates with Washington over Iran; Binyamin Netanyahu knows this as he stays on the phone with Washington’s neoconservatives, who are promising that if he holds on they can destroy Obama for him; Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad know this as they assess whether they can outlast this frustrating leader of the Great Satan; the Saudis know this; China knows this”

Batting for the Structuralists is the IR specialist Stephen M. Walt

“Will yesterday’s passage of health-care reform give a positive jolt to U.S. foreign policy? Is Obama the new “comeback kid,” with new clout at home and a more formidable hand to play abroad? Will he now pivot from domestic affairs to foreign policy and achieve a dazzling set of diplomatic victories? My answers: no, no, and no….
There isn’t a lot of low-hanging fruit in foreign policy. He might get an arms-control agreement with Russia, but there aren’t a lot of votes in that and there’s no way he’ll get a comprehensive test-ban treaty through the post-2010 Senate. Passing health care at home won’t make Iran more cooperative, make sanctions more effective, or make preventive war more appealing, so that issue will continue to fester. Yesterday’s vote doesn’t change anything in Iraq; it is their domestic politics that matters, not ours. I’d say much the same thing about Afghanistan, though Obama will face another hard choice when the 18-month deadline for his “surge” is up in the summer of 2011. Passing a health-care bill isn’t going to affect America’s increasingly fractious relationship with China, cause Osama bin Laden to surrender, or lead North Korea to embrace market reforms, hold elections, and give up its nuclear weapons.”

Though Walt is correct that passing health care wont in itself solve any of these factors, I side with Sullivan. As a constructivist afterall I really should. Constructivism is an approach to International Relations which identifies how agents socially construct much of the structures they find themselves in(and in turn their own identity as agents). To take the most well known of examples (and papers) the ‘anarchy’ of the world between nation-states today is as Alexander Wendt claims what states make of it (pdf). That is, how the world is seen determines what is seen. How Obama is seen, especially by the other Big Men of the world is important to what influence and credibility he is likely to have with them. The more Obama is seen as a successful domestic leader, the better he will be as a foreign policy leader.

To cite from a local example, here is Michael Wesley in one of my favourite books ‘The Howard Paradox’:

“Over time, [John]Howard has come to enjoy the international aspect of his job. Domestically, those with whom he regularly comes in contact either owe him, resent him or want his job; internationally, he is able to mix with equals who are familiar with the challenges of national leadership, and who can offer observations and advice untainted by designs on his job. In recent years, according to one journalist, Howard has enjoyed the status of being the respected elder statesman in a region that respects seniority’
Michael Wesley, (2009) The Howard Paradox, ABC books

Wesley makes many arguments for why Howard was able to do much better than his critics alleged he would, but that last sentence is perhaps the wisest. By 2002, when his record started to shift in his favour, Howard had been in power 6 years with three highly successful election victories under his belt. To those in the region he was clearly a very capable political operator and not going anywhere soon. As other regional elders like Malaysia’s Mahathir retired, Howard came to assume one of the roles as regional elder statesman.

Obama doesn’t have the same luxury of time that Howard did. The US probably does a disservice by its Presidents by forcing an 8 year maximum, but they do start from a significantly higher platform than anyone else does. Obama, especially as a younger (and lets be honest black) president needs to stamp his international authority and quickly. Being dominant at home doesn’t change the structures that confront him internationally, but a clear legislative victory (and especially one of this magnitude) is likely to send a signal that he is a statesman to be respected and not just a lucky winner of the White House. His party will lose seats in November, but you’d have to be firming on betting that Obama will win in 2012. The message of all this to the Big Men and Women in governments around the world? This man is not weak, impatient or going anywhere. Deal with this man now, as he is only going to get better at this.

Politics is built on many things, ideas, history, geography, economics, and demographics, but it often ends with two big men in a room negotiating how all these factors go together. As Marx said, people make history.

Understanding the world through the media

One of the thing that has amazed me over the last few years is how badly the Australian press understands America. I had thought this was a symptom of George W.Bush being in the white house, a character so unusual to the Australian mindset that we never got a bearing on him. But it continued through the2008 election campaign and through to today. This isn’t just a function of remoteness either, take todays effort by Brad Norrington, The Australian’s US based reporter:

If any proof were needed that US foreign policy, especially in the Pacific, is far down the list of priorities for Obama and his team then here it is.
George W. Bush ignored the region, say his detractors. What about Obama? The President’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, stumbled through a prepared script yesterday. But he put the situation aptly: “The passage of health reform is of paramount importance and the President is determined to see this battle through.”
In other words, Obama’s domestic push to pass a watered-down version of health reform in the US congress so he can chalk up a legislative victory after a year of bumbling comes first. The message to Indonesia and Australia could not be clearer.

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Looking North with Open Eyes

While everyone knows that Kevin Rudd speaks Mandarin, those watching the speeches accompanying the visit of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono over the last week would have noticed something else: Rudd also knows a little Indonesian too. While welcoming phrases in a guests own language are a standard part of pre-meeting briefings, the impetus was more likely from Rudd himself, for one of his major early career focuses was on making Australian’s more Asia-literate.

In 1994 Rudd delivered a report to the Federal Government on ways to make Australia a more Asia-Literate country. Though part of the wider Engagement project it was played down by the government because of populist fears that “engagement” was some sort of code word for selling the countries soul to the foreigners up north. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the concern was there. Rudd’s report, Asian Languages and Australia’s Economic Future, (Of which Deborah Henderson’s paper(pdf) provides a good overview & analysis) sought to create an export culture in australia via significant investment in the teaching of asian languages and building long term links to the region in education, media and business.
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Counter-Terrorism White Paper

Tuesday saw the release of the Rudd Governments first Counter-Terrorism White Paper (Get it here). It seems we are now duty bound to receive regular white papers on topics governments see as important (Defence, Aging, National Security principles & now on Terrorism – though no word on Foreign Policy) which is in the large a positive step, however this one feels somewhat like the homework done the night before, being slightly too glossy and superficial in parts. However this is an important document for the rhetorical shift it makes in how the government understands terrorism; first the causes and secondly who & how we fight it. It’s not entirely confident in its new positions (like the Defence Force 2030 White Paper), but the Rudd government is clearly shifting away from the Howard Government to attribute social & economic factors as drivers of terrorism, and is envisioning a role for Australia to fight the message war as well as the material one.

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People reject Rudd’s competence on National Security

The press may be focused intently on the story of economics & climate change polling, but todays Newspoll has an even bigger surprise hidden:

The lead Howard developed over Labor shouldn’t be too surprising in 2006, only 5 years from the 9/11 attacks, 4 from Bali, 3 from the War in Iraq. National Security competence can’t be delivered in bite sized policy announcements, it comes through being competent when faced with issues major and minor.

However leaders can have an impact, when Kevin Rudd the Mandarin speaking diplomat and shadow foreign affairs minister became Opposition leader Howard’s numbers dropped 8 points and Labors rose 10*. Since then Labor has steadily gained, with only a wobble just before the election (with the Coalition doing their best to make security an issue given that economics wasn’t working so well). But take a look at the latest results, where Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop(Shadow Foreign Affairs), & David Johnston(Shadow Defence) have gained a 6 point lead over Labor. Amazing. It’s Labors highest showing (just), but clearly many have switched back to the coalition from uncommitted, meaning it’s a positive switch towards the coalition.

I’m not sure the reasons why. Fitzgibbon is long enough gone from Defence (save the odd newspaper scandal) to be replaced by the stately Faulkner. Smith is a competent foreign minister and Rudd has had a mixed but certainly highly competent record. Labor has pulled troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan/The War on Terror is at least no worse than last year, perhaps even better & the Defence White paper pretty run of the mill. While Johnson has a long standing interest in this area he is unknown to the public, and Bishop only took this job because she was dumped from shadow treasurer. The comparison is most stark at the leadership level where you’d assume attention is focused. Rudd’s main focus after the GFC was international/regional issues, while Abbott seems yet to have addressed the issues as Opposition leader and devotes only 5 pages out of his 200 page book on the issue.

So why the drop? And what is giving the coalition such a strong showing?

* That the public saw Kevin Rudd as more capable on National Security issues over Kim ‘the bomber’ Beazley does make you ponder slightly about the public’s judgement.

The power of humor: WoT Humor?

An thought provoking and amusing piece from The Jakarta Post:

Do Asians have a sense of humor?
Nury Vittachi
A teacher who wanted only to be known as Man-sir had sent me links to several articles which said the biggest threat to world peace was the culture gap between West and East. “Experts say the best bet for bridging that potentially catastrophic gap is shared entertainment: movies, sport, and in particular, humor,” he wrote.
But that’s the problem. “Westerners consider Asians to be wildly unfunny. And several non-Western cultural groups, such as Muslims and Mainland Chinese, they consider humorless to a dangerous degree,” Man-sir wrote. “We need to prove Asians can be funny.”
Intelligent, sensible people do not waste time on people who insult them. So I dropped what I was doing and phoned him at once. The world’s most pressing problem was a drastic shortage of Islamic humor, he explained. “Locating and distributing this will defuse global tension by showing that Muslims can be funny, charming and self-deprecating.” Thinking about it, I realized words like “funny” and “charming” aren’t used a lot about Osama Bin Laden, the only Muslim most Westerners can name. Man-sir was right about something else, too: Asian comedians are as rare as braincells in the Jonas Brothers’ fan club.

I’ll leave aside the question of asian’s being funny ( Anh Do always cracks me up), but the role of humor as a political weapon is a critical and under-discussed issue in shaping the psychological nature of the war on terrorism. This is something one of my favourite comedians Lewis Black noted way back in 2002: The fundamental difference between the west and its attackers was that we could laugh. We could laugh at ourselves, we could laugh at them, and relief from the burdens of life through humor, and in that we could find perspective. Given our moral descent into torture and the angry stridency that even 7 years later still marks our (esp the US’s) debate on terrorism, it’s worth reminding ourselves of this virtue.
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Facts are sometimes the easiest thing to burn: The Indian attacks and the media

I somewhat understand why the Indian media is so keen to play up the idea that Indians are victimised in Australia. The government is pissed at Rudd over Uranium/NPT, and its always popular to play the nationalist card. What I don’t understand is why the Australian media seems to be aiding them:

INDIA’S high commissioner, Sujatha Singh, will return to Delhi for talks next week amid rising diplomatic tension over attacks on Indian students in Australia. Mrs Singh made a stinging complaint to the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, over the attacks in Melbourne, labelling Victoria a state ”in denial” over the severity of the problem.
Word of the envoy’s return came after India’s External Affairs Minister, S. M. Krishna, issued a strong statement on the attacks, demanding they be “stopped forthwith”. Mrs Singh will travel to Delhi to explain her perspective on the violence, which threatens to seriously damage relations between the nations.

This sounds like a major diplomatic incident. Especially in an era of easy phone, electronic and video communication, recalling a diplomat to discuss a problem is a gesture heavy with meaning. Indeed my first thought on reading the story was ‘what has set off this new row’ that such a step would be made.

Only it turns out, Singh isn’t heading back because of the attacks, and this is all just routine: (From the same article a few paragraphs down)
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Resurrecting the idea of Humanitarian Interventions

Christopher Hitchens on North Korea:

Here are the two most shattering facts about North Korea. First, when viewed by satellite photography at night, it is an area of unrelieved darkness. Barely a scintilla of light is visible even in the capital city. (See this famous photograph.) Second, a North Korean is on average six inches shorter than a South Korean. You may care to imagine how much surplus value has been wrung out of such a slave, and for how long, in order to feed and sustain the militarized crime family that completely owns both the country and its people.

But this is what proves Myers right. Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: This horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.

While the Iraqi people have suffered due to the Bush Administrations botching of the invasion of Iraq, it is the people of the world who are still in abject dictatorship which have suffered the most. Designed as a giant confidence play to strike fear and the necessity of submission into dictators world wide, its controversy, bungling and cost have instead given ultimate re-assurance. Among the dead lies the idea of Humanitarian Interventions, a liberal idea of cautious military use to protect individuals, turned into a conservative rock tune of freedom and change by mid-afternoon.

While there were mistakes and setbacks in the 1990’s (in particular Clinton’s and other democratic leaders significant over-estimation of public unwillingness accept the loss of life towards such aims), progress had been made in establishing the idea as a viable policy option, with mechanisms and even discussion of standing forces to be dedicated towards the task rising. But that option has been fundamentally damaged, and the discussion returned to a taboo, both by liberals who now fear the underlying motives of any self-professed moral activity by government/the military and conservatives who either don’t see any rewards (those ungrateful iraqis!) or now out of office have re-found their worry about military over-reach and the power of government to affect societal change.

None of this is to say that we should invade North Korea, or that they’d be free were it not for Bush (obviously not). But the option for policy makers has been removed from the table, and is awkwardly side-stepped when brought up in polite company or the halls of academia and foreign policy commentators. Even now, nearly 7 years on from Iraq, the wounds are still too raw for us to escape the inevitable comparison: If you advocate humanitarian invasion you’re a Neo-Con with hidden imperialist motives, if you argue a better society can be brought about, few see anything but images of suicide bombs and IED’s filling their imagination.

Appropriately implemented Humanitarian Intervention I would argue is a fundamental element of a peaceful, democratic world society. Implementing the norm of Sovereignty in 17th century Europe may have brought us freedom from religious wars (well largely) but we also need to ensure that governments can no longer hide behind the security of their own borders to avoid responsibility for their crimes against their citizens and humanity at large. Many countries make the shift to democracy on their own, but some stubborn few have to be blasted out. Until we can return to a discussion about even that possibility (again in the context of full discussion and needing an appropriate process such as UN authorization) then the oppressed, shrinking slaves of places like North Korea will continue to suffer alone and in the dark.