Chasing the Norm

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

Category: Australian Foreign Policy

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.
Read the full article »

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)
Read the full article »

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.

Gillard’s need for an Indian summer

The recent whohar with India over the stabbing murder of Nitin Garg is a class A example of how foreign policy crises shape leaders rather than are shaped by them. Neither government initiated it, and whilst the Indian government is playing domestic populist and airing some grumbles over uranium, it would probably prefer the issue goes away quickly.

Though some like Gerard Henderson seem certain Australia has an anti-Indian race problem (he’d never have said that under Howard), for myself, like most of the community, the idea seems absurd. Indians are long standing residents of this country, who don’t cause trouble, seem closely integrated and love their cricket. There are racist elements in Australia who may target all non-whites, but that’s a far cry from the absolute rubbish being served up in the Indian media scaring many potential students and migrants away from the country.

This crisis however offers a potentially career defining opportunity for our Deputy PM Julia Gillard. While clearly highly competent, there is a perception that she is a little too thinly stretched across her responsibilities. Not only as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations; Minister for Education; Minister for Social Inclusion, she is part of the governments gang-of-four who decide most policy issues, along with being a very politically important Deputy Prime Minister, and a regular Acting Prime Minister. Errors such as the spending of stimulus money on schools that had one student or were due to close were not errors of judgement so much as of editing. Gillard also needs to get some policy runs on the board given her past golden duck efforts such as Medicare Gold. Fixing the issue now would bring short term political benefit to the Rudd Government, whilst offering a point to be remembered in by colleagues in 5 or so years she begins to think seriously about becoming PM in her own right.

Having introduced the ALP’s new IR legislation on Jan 1, it might be a very good idea for Gillard to drop her role as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations (and Social Inclusion) and focus on education, starting with international students. The Rudd Government came to office promising an education revolution. Even including stimulus spending, it has barely touched the issue, and this challenge is a perfect opportunity to make some big changes with public support.

As our fourth biggest export industry, worth $16.6 billion, the market for international students strangely came about without much government attention. Indeed it was the neglect (if not deliberate damage) by the Howard government of the tertiary sector which lead universities to seek substantial numbers of full fee paying international students as a way to cover their budget shortfalls. This turned into a boom industry, but it is one that has been badly managed and regulated, with the collapse of four private international student focused schools in late 2009 a too common story.Though already a huge industry, the potential for turning Australia into a SE Asia education hub is enticing.

Not only is this an industry that plays on Australia’s strengths in education, culture and brain power, and not only is it highly lucrative irrespective of global financial conditions, it also delivers key diplomatic and security advantages to Australia. By educating the youth of the regions elite (and up & coming leaders) we gain crucial leverage and understanding throughout the region. In 20-30 years time, these same people will be the business, cultural and political leaders, and their views of Australia will be closely shaped by their time here. A positive view could well be the difference between a key trade contract being awarded or even back channels to avoid war and conflict. That’s not hyperbole, in the case of E.Timor a large reason why there was no firefights between Australian and Indonesian troops was because of the personal links between the two armies, averting conflict.

Immediate action is clearly needed to calm the views of the Indian population in Australia, and the Indian government and media overseas. But long term, serious action needs to be taken to help improve the international student sector, as a starting plank for delivering an education revolution. This would deliver on the Rudd governments promise of an education revolution, improve and reform a key economic industry, and let Gillard and Rudd address an area that is clearly very important to both of them, both personally and politically.

For more on the India-Australia challenges faced, and potential responses, I’d recommend two publications by the Lowy Institute: After the perfect storm: Indian students in Australia by Janaki Bahadur and Troubled waters in need of oil by Rory Medcalf.

Can Australia play a meaningful role in nuclear disarmament? Pt 1

Water+nuclear+bomb+-+by+AlifaanTomorrow, December 15th, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will be in Japan with his counterpart to launch the new report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament(ICNND). Co-Chaired by Former Keating Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, this report is Rudd’s first (and perhaps biggest) shot at making Australia a key player in ending the proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and planning for their eventual disarmament.

Once the report is out, I’ll do an assessment of Rudd’s approach, but for the time being I want to quickly look at the Hawke and Keating Governments actions on Nuclear Weapons and how they should inform Rudd’s actions.

While the Hawke Government was significantly concerned about the issue of nuclear weapons, it’s power to achieve any change during the cold war was obviously limited (Although this was a period of significant disarmament successes). Instead it set about addressing issues like Chemical Weapons, via a range of non-politicised conferences and workshops, building a coalition of major chemical exporting states, and extensive engagement with expert advisors who could both run the education campaigns, and bring the chemical industry onside for aiding negotiations and export controls. The Hawke Government also managed to sign the Treaty of Rarotonga, or South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, an approach that has been replicated in Asia, Africa and Central-Asia. Interestingly domestic concern over nuclear weapons peaked during this period (such as the Nuclear Disarmament Party lead by future ALP minister Peter Garrett), however it was largely dismissed by the Government who wanted to continue supporting Americas nuclear shield and related alliance issues.

The Keating Government came to power with the end of the Cold War imminent, unleashing ‘unprecedented and possibly unrepeatable opportunity’ for change in the eyes of Paul Keating. It continued the Hawke governments desire for Australian involvement in stopping the flow of nuclear weapons and disarmament, however there was a more conscious question of identity involved in the governments actions. Keating & Evans wanted Australia to ‘be and be seen to be a good international citizen’, and no cause was more clearly in line with this than preventing the development, testing, sale or use of nuclear weapons. However in 1995 when the French announced a series of Atomic Tests at Mururoa Atoll in the pacific the government suddenly had to make good on its nice sounding words. The actions of the French outraged the Australian population, and little the government did seemed to satisfy the public. In part prompted by recent events, the Keating Government set up the Canberra Commission to report on the elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which the Coalition reluctantly pledged to support if they won office.

While waiting for the report, the Keating Government also participated in an International Court of Justice case on the legality of Nuclear weapons. Represented by Foreign Minister Gareth Evans Q.C, Australia argued that it is ‘illegal not only to use or threaten use of nuclear weapons, but to acquire, develop, test or possess them’. (Evans however, like Hawke before him was careful to argue that any views Australia had should not be taken as offering commentary on the alliance with the nuclear armed USA). The court was not quite persuaded, and in a split decision held that ‘the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law’. However they could not rule on the legality of their use as a tool of survival or self-defense. Little was expected from the case (the Nuclear Weapons powers states would ignore even a unanimous decision against them), but it showed the range of arenas in which the government was willing to act to push their case.

The voters had other issues on their mind and in March 1996 Keating and Evan’s were tossed from office, and the Canberra Commission report emerged into the arms of a very reluctant step-father. The new foreign minister Alexander Downer went through the motions launching the report and taking it to the Convention on Disarmament in 1997, but without strong Australian backing, it was hard for other countries to get excited.

However – The Canberra Commission report of 1996 is still one of the pre-eminent documents on addressing the question of nuclear weapons ever produced. In the coming years it received strong support from India, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, Austria, Sweden and Brazil. To the Nuclear Weapons states, it offered a pragmatic and sensible recognition of their core security needs, to the non-nuclear weapons states it offered a clear draft with viable steps for taking action. The Canberra Commission centered around three main proposals: a cut-off convention; no-first-use agreements; and support for nuclear weapons free zones. Unfortunately without any significant Australian government support the effort spluttered out of energy, and the Clinton Administration, having previously embraced the new found optimism of the post-cold war period was distracted by domestic issues. Still, a look at any of the major commentary on nuclear weapon control and disarmament will show you finger prints of the Canberra commission.

Finally, while the Howard Government effectively ignored their predecessors efforts to eliminate or even reduce nuclear weapons (except in the case of nuclear terrorism), they did recognise one asset in the effort which this country has above all others: Uranium deposits. While Labors internal debate prevents any real use of this resource (even under Rudd), the Howard government realised the role which Australia as a leading world supplier of Uranium could play in both controlling and influencing the way in which nuclear weapons and nuclear power was developed in the world. While still early days, (even they ran into significant domestic complaint), this is an asset which gives Australia a unique strength amongst the many other middle power countries who want to see an end to nuclear weapons. As yet, we have not had either an opportunity to exploit this resource diplomatically, or a government with enough popular support in the area to do so, but it remains a valuable potential.

In re-starting Australia’s efforts towards nuclear disarmament, Rudd showed his strong desire to learn from the Hawke-Keating governments in choosing Gareth Evans to Co-Chair the commission (along with Japans former foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi). But as this quick survey shows, it needs to go beyond just Evans. Having studied some of this for a chapter in my PhD, it seems clear that the following requirements of Australia’s promotional effort will have to be in place:

1) The report has to be pragmatic and offer concrete suggestions.
2) It has to bring both Nuclear and Non-Nuclear weapons states along and recognise the different needs of both.
3) The further it can be de-politicised the better. Involving experts (again linked to suggestion 1) is critical to credibility and making it an issue of management and specifics, rather than grand empty principles.
4) The continued activity of the Australian government to push this will be critical. While few doubt the energy of Rudd 24/7, this is something where he may,perhaps, just, see initial results for in his final term. Continued pressure rather than once off launches are key (and why is it being launched during Copenhagen & at the end of the year??)
5) The Labor party will need to resolve division on uranium and seek ways to strategically exploit this resource, or at least let other countries know we could.
6) The US alliance and nuclear shield for Australia somewhat demonstrates Australia’s hypocrisy, however, and this is a big however, our clear understanding of the security needs of nuclear weapons states gives us an increased credibility. Important to all this will be the views and actions of Barack Obama and perhaps even moreso the US Congress. Obama gave a great speech in Prague, but unless he can convince skeptical conservative democrats like Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and sees changes to the destructive minority veto of the filibuster, all his support in the world wont see political change. Australia needs to stay in the alliance, and ahead of the US helping to guide its path along, without getting so far away that Obama can’t see our lights.

So, cautiously, we can say that Australia already has a strong reputation as a country that is both serious and committed to address the proliferation and disarmament of nuclear weapons. A serious effort by Rudd, building on this success could return momentum to a path that stalled in the 1980’s & 1990’s. To do that, we need to lead with experts rather than politicians, be relentlessly pragmatic, and maintain a determination to keep at it for as long as it takes.

Later in the week, once i’ve digested the new ICNND report, I’ll come back and discuss how Rudd’s doing on that score.

Book Review: The March of Patriots by Paul Kelly

The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia by Paul Kelly Melbourne:Melbourne University Press $69.95 rrp
I had the good fortune of attending a lecture by Paul Kelly tonight on his book and Australian politics, so I figured this was a good incentive to polish off my review of his book which I promised over a month ago. His speech was largely a re-emphasis of the books main argument, or defence of some of its views, but where relevant I’ll add in his updated thoughts, indicated with a *.

One of the hardest tasks for writers of politics is to see how close you can get to normal events, whilst producing something substantial. Journalists are used to having most of their work quickly forgotten and in that temporariness, can find a freedom to formulate and re-formulate how they see the world. But for those producing something longer, a book, a thesis, there is an expectation that you can both obtain enough distance to properly observe an event and its characters, and still getting it out before the public demand for insight fades. In his earlier book ‘The End of Certainty’ Kelly charted the economic reforms of the Hawke/Keating Government, and yet his best formulation was not what they did, but defining what they removed via the concept of an ‘Australian Settlement’. Kelly’s latest idea is that Keating and Howard are best seen as Australian patriots, whose similarities are greater than their differences. Unfortunately its not quite so catchy, and his colleague George Megalogenis got there first with ‘The Longest Decade’ (and arguably proved the similarity thesis better).

Given Kelly’s conservatism, it is remarkable that this is actually his first book on the conservative side of politics. Despite the joint images on the title, Kelly devotes around 1/3 or 225 pages to Keating’s 5 years, and 2/3’s or 400 pages to Howard’s first 5 years, promising a second volume to come covering 2001-2007. The numbers give a fair ratio of his biases. Where Howard and Keating overlap on economics he is broadly supportive, even downright impressed by Keating’s bravery and genius, likewise on Asian Engagement as a Foreign Policy objective. Where they differ, on nationalism, culture, war, Kelly comes down firmly on Howard’s side. While there are already a number of books on Howard, the March of Patriots is going to become a cornerstone for interpreting the administration.

In Howard, Kelly sees four key impulses at work (1) Economic Liberalism, (2) Social Conservatism (3) Cultural Traditionalism (4) National Security vigilance. The first two are common wisdom, and the latter easily discernible though usefully brought together here. I’m less convinced by his claim that Howard isn’t a neo-liberal. There is of course a difference between rhetoric and policy, but given that Kelly awards the term of Cultural traditionalist to Howard whilst admitting his policy achievements in this area are ‘threadbare’*, it seems odd that he ignores so much of the rhetorical trend towards free-marketeerism under Howard. Indeed Kelly has said he deliberately ignored a lot of the politics so as to focus on the policy/governance issues, but both are significant to understand a governments thoughts. The Howard government relentlessly sold the idea that the unhindered market was the best way to run economic policy, and its occasional reticence (such as with banking or communications regulation) or their popularism (middle class welfare) doesn’t necessarily prove otherwise. In private Kelly argues Howard and Costello rejected the self-correcting market theory, which is largely true of the legislation that passed (via an a largely hostile senate) but had Howard enjoyed Senate control at the beginning of his government, not its tired final term, history’s judgement may have been very different.

In terms of foreign policy, Kelly makes a far bolder claim in both book and person that Howard “pioneered the idea of Australia as a regional leader”*. This is an interesting claim, in that Australians have always been reticent about claiming that Australia could lead this region. We have a profoundly different culture, history, background and way of life. Kelly points to the case of E.Timor as the first time Australia took the lead in a military role. However this downplays Australia’s role in creating APEC, encouraging the Cambodian peacekeeping, and advocacy on preventing WMD non-proliferation in the region. The Australian Government may have titled the policy as ‘Engagement’ but to my mind, it was an unabashed effort at positioning for and achieving regional leadership, under a much more PR friendly label. To grant Howard the credit seems to miss the critical set-up work that he inherited (though Kelly quotes Downer and others stressing the critical importance of Hawke/Keating’s creation of APEC to achieving success in E.Timor) The Foreign policy story is also incomplete, with the book ending at the unfortunate pivot point of 2001, which marks the end of the major economic policies, but fits half way between the big changes in Foreign Policy. For that I guess we will just have to wait…

Kelly’s book is in some ways hard to criticize. He lives up to his pledge* to focus on policy issues over the politics. His central thesis that Keating and Howard were both focused on restoring Australian patriotism, and had more in common than divided them/suited their parties to acknowledge is eminently defendable. But this insiders tale, with immaculate access to the powerful, also feels somewhat hollow. Kelly doesn’t manage to capture or even attempt to define the anger or resentment many in the public felt towards Howard. But you can’t understand Howard and Keating’s story without understanding the often ambivalent, sometimes hostile public reaction to them. Both men were loved within their tribes, hated by the other, and often polarised most of the public at various times of their leadership. Kelly perhaps rightly knows his argument that what unites them is more important is controversial, however it is notable how little popular sentiment seems to be considered, and his almost outright dismissal for their being any legitimate base of anger at Howard from the left. This is a sin by omission rather than fault, and one not unique to his book, but I think significant to understand the environment Keating and Howard were operating in. In fact even if limited to Howard, this would have been a big improvement (and given Kelly’s previous work on Keating and the proliferation of books on his government, this may have been better served as a book solely on Howard over his entire administration.)

Kelly is for better or worse Australia’s Bob Woodward (who traded in his watergate credentials for a white house all-access-pass). This insider status grants amazing access to the powerful, with often revealing interviews. These interviews let the major players speak for themselves, sometimes even hang themselves with their own claims, but it’s traded for a very conventional level of analysis. Indeed Kelly’s book screams conventional in its analysis, a thought only tempered by the knowledge that it was probably Kelly who set the common wisdom which everyone else has come to endorse. Where he speaks or acts, the press typically follows. For political junkies and close followers, Kelly’s book is a must read. There is not much that is brand new, but the book is very well researched, organised and its focus on policy over politics a welcome change, whilst in an very readable format.

Refugees in Context

The Lowy Think Tank blog The Interpreter has a fascinating post up about China’s lack of planning and policy for dealing with refugees.

The recent influx of tens of thousands of Burmese refugees caught Chinese border guards by surprise. Local government in China’s Yunnan province had to temporarily shelter more than 13,000 Burmese — a difficult mission, especially when China lacks both the experience and regulations to deal with large groups of international refugees.

China borders 16 countries, most of which are economically under-developed, politically unstable and ethnically complicated. Some of these countries’ governments face increasing criticisms over their legitimacy, as in the case of Burma and North Korea; some are in a de facto state of war, as in the case of Pakistan; and some are unstable democracies, as in the case of central Asian countries and Thailand.

But China is not prepared. China is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the supplemental 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. But China has so far not passed laws dealing with refugees. As a result, in the face of large numbers of refugees, local authorities can only handle each situation on a case-by-case basis, first seeking instructions from Beijing and then coordinating its policy with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, other departments and UNHCR.

While conservatives like Paul Kelly proclaim (in his new book March of Patriots) that there is a uniquely Australian bargain between the government and the people that allows migration but forces the use of mandatory detention, it’s worth remembering that every other country in the world faces challenges often much much harder than ours. Australia has no land borders with any other country, a sparsely populated immediate region (save Indonesia) and a strong political order that is accustomed to dealing with such issues in a nation wide and orderly fashion. Refugee numbers are overwhelmingly tied to international events (Tiananmen Square brought 16’000, Afghanistan and Iraq saw 8400 in 2001) and in 2008 of the 3’200 Protection Visa applications, those who came by boat made up only 4% of the total number of applications for protection visas.

Australia has one of the best records in the world with migration and peaceful assimilation of migrants. But we also have a geographic advantage that no one else can beat. In light of these advantages, our harsh immigration policies are less the necessary undergirding to a multicultural society, but repressive measures that appease xenophobic elements without necessarily doing anything to change refugee behaviour, and an over-reaction to the scope of the problem faced. Thankfully some of these measures are beginning to change and well done to Liberal Senator Judith Troeth for crossing the floor to support the legislation stopping the charging of asylum seekers for their detention.

Rudd the Global Architect

In coming to office, Kevin Rudd is perhaps the most foreign policy focused PM since Gough Whitlam (Fraser had some good pet issues but wasn’t otherwise interested). Circumstances however have dictated that he has spent most of his Prime Ministership focusing on Economic issues, and he has published two essays on the issue. Thanks to The Age newspaper we now however have his essay on Foreign Policy, having been rejected in March by the journal Foreign Affairs. Given the timing it is of course heavily focused on the economic challenges of the international arena, but it also gives us some key insights into the Prime Ministers world view.
While the popular press has tended to focus on Rudd’s views on China and the USA, foreign policy scholars have been more interested in his support for regional and international institutions. Writing of the ‘inadequate’ response of global institutions Rudd warns in the essay that this may turn into a ‘crisis of government itself if political constituencies conclude their national political institutions are impotent’. To address this he calls for the urgent renovation of the global architecture. The full piece is worth a read (though the writing is easily mocked, and has a halting style, it is quite readable).

Rudd strongly supports international institutions, but he also clearly knows the risk posed in proposing more of them. We already seem to suffer an over abundance of them, and he contrasts the realist support for pure national sovereignty, to an idealist one advocating “unelected multilateral institutions staffed with wise men and women who, by some mystic process detected from real politics, will divine and deliver some form of the Platonic ‘good’ for us all”. It’s a cheap straw man for someone who does actually believe in expanding international institutions, but also shows his fear of being labelled an idealist/world government advocate. But he makes good on his scepticism and proposes only the encouragement of a ‘driving center’ mission for the G-20. This hasn’t quite been taken up, but having helped escape the worst of the GFC, we will likely see an enhanced role and prestige for it.

Australia has a pretty good record as an advocate of regional and international architecture, being a dynamic small power in the early days of the UN, fathering APEC, regular participation in other regional bodies, and even developing more informal groups like the Cairns group for trade negotiations. Rudd clearly wants to build on this, and his Asia-Pacific Community is his big contribution. Right now it seems the early preparation was rushed (Woolcott apparently had just 5 hours advance notice of his role as regional salesman), and the promotion effort hasn’t caught too many buyers eyes. But these structures take years even in the best of circumstances, and Rudd still needs to earn his stripes in the region as a long term leader if he is to have influence (it was this reason, along with his growing comfort that explains much of Howard’s improved regional foreign policy in the second half of his government).

Rudd’s essay, like all he does, fits Bob Ellis’s unbeatable phrase of ‘muscular timidity’. It demands significant change whilst decrying those who want to go even a single step beyond. It is sensible and pragmatic, but hardly as radical as it thinks it is or would like to be seen. Like Obama in the US, Rudd is a very centrist leader, if not a clearly conservative one in their joint desire to work within existing structures to achieve change.

We are already in a very different environment from that of Feb-March 2009 when the essay was written. Economics is back to being the most important issue, instead of the only one, and domestic pressures with an election next year are beginning to distract the Rudd government. Still we are seeing a bit more focus on Foreign Policy again, and should expect that to significantly increase in their (presumed) 2nd term. Where Howard wanted to be remembered for economics and industrial relations, it is in Foreign Policy that Rudd fancies his chances of having history honour him. Understanding how he views this and what he wants to see as an ideal outcome may give us some idea of just how he is going to go about seeking an actual outcome when the opportunity presents itself. It wont be for a while, but as they say in the serials, watch this space…

A new Force (for) 2030

Several months ago I attended a 2 day course on National Security taught by Professor Peter Leahy (former Chief of the Australian Army). Among the attendees were current and ex-military officials, various interested public servants, scholars, and a high ranking AFP officer. Coming at the time of the Defence White Paper Force 2030, a repeated topic of discussion was how Australia would deal with the various challenges to order within its immediate pacific region. Whilst the demands for such action are likely to grow (due to rising regional instability, and domestic demands for intervention), neither of our forces are well designed for the type of operation required. As such we have quite mixed forces, with around 930 ADF and 285 AFP officials spread over 9 separate missions. Yet neither force is specifically or really appropriately designed for this task.
Untac police officers
The Military offers great strength and organisation in entering, securing and organizing such missions. (Whilst they have all been at the invite of local governments, that may not be the case in the future, and in some such as E.Timor it came pretty close), but that comes at a cost of under-developed political and cultural skills. The AFP on the other hand are often excellent at bringing order via political and institutional co-option, but not armed or trained to handle worsening conflicts. And neither group is especially equipped for long term development, in institution building, long term resource and urban planning, and economic organisation. Nor are they designed for pre-ventative action, keeping nations from falling into disorder or distress. So we have brave and hard working men and women in both organisations try to accomplish jobs which they weren’t originally trained for, and which are managed over several branches and organisations.

So whilst the Defence White Paper gives this task to the ADF (7.10 page 54), it is burdening to an institution who, like most other countries military’s is still largely planned along the lines of 19th century European forces. While there has been a proliferation of special and elite forces within militaries (particularly after 9/11) most are undesigned and indeed highly resistant to the idea that peacekeeping and development should be a primary focus for them. So the police are co-opted, and various cross-agency organisations are established such as the Australian Defence Force Peacekeeping Center (1993) and the Asia Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence (2008).

Instead, as came out of our discussions in the National Security course, what really needs to be considered by policy makers is the establishment of an entirely new force. Likely as a fourth branch of the military, it’s focus would be political over martial, development over destruction, and preventative and preemptive in tackling threats, rather than waiting for the hostile threat to appear. A new force, given military style training to ensure their protection and professional organisation, whilst focusing on political and cultural understanding of the region, co-opting the best in development, and state design would be ideally designed to tackle what is sure to be a on-going and increasing demand placed upon Australia. Not only would this give us a specific tool for a specific job, it would be a highly desired force (so wouldn’t have the recruiting trouble of the ADF) in offering university educated students who are interested in international relations, regional studies or sociology and development, the chance to put into practice their learning. Right now these kids (and there are tens of thousands of them) are placing their bets on NGO’s or a prized DFAT place, but most will miss out and abandon these dreams for a different, domestically focused career, their study and learning being reduced to a passing interest. This is a great waste of talent, enthusiasm and education.

Australia does not have a mandate for control, or even a desire to be the only authority figure in the South Pacific. But as a nation we have increasingly come to believe we ought to be involved in helping our neighbors secure their own countries, and rebuild (In the case of E.Timor in 1999 it was the Australian population who forced their politicians into action). But having an almost 60 year history of such peacekeeping, we still don’t have a force designed specifically for the task. It’s about time we started moving towards building one.

Do the Liberals have a China Problem?

In 1983, soon after the election, the Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang visited Australia. Like all good officials, he attended a number of dinners in his honour. Protocol dictates that the Speaker of the House sits to the right of the main guest during parliamentary functions, and as no new speaker had yet been elected, the outgoing speaker, & former leader of the Liberal Party, Billy Snedden, took that place. As Bob Hawke recounts in his memoirs, some time well into the meal, Hawke invited Snedden to continue the conversation with the Premier. Bill did so for a while “and then leant over Zhao and to my horror said to me “Prime Minister, I think we should congratulate the Premier on his use of the knife and fork”‘. (page 343) An interpreter apparently saved the day in that instance, but what then is Julie Bishops excuse for this similar moment of boneheadedness: -> “the Rudd Government failed to work constructively with China regarding the visit to Australia of Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer.”
Ms Bishop said the Rudd Government has failed to establish a relationship based on mutual respect, which has led to the breakdown in relations between the Governments of China and Australia.

Bishop didn’t misspeak, she repeated the same concerns the following day.This demand we back down in the face of Chinese urging, comes after some months of claiming (if not since Rudd became leader of the Labor Party) that he is too close to and submissive to the Chinese, as Bejing’s ‘Roving Ambassador‘.

Worse, the Opposition cant seem to make up its mind how to describe china, verging from great unknown bogeyman style rhetoric, through to Turnbull’s (quickly retracted) claim that China was an ally early on in his time as Leader of the Opposition. Even little things about china seem to unsettle the Opposition, with one of the more interesting spectacles of the recent parliamentary fortnight being a walkout during Question Time by some WA MP’s in response to the Governments boasting about the Gorgon deal.

Clearly some Liberals, such as John Howard knew how to handle the regime, (though Howard took a few years to find his feet), and when I ask if the Liberals have China problem, I am not alleging underlying racism, but rather an inability to think clearly about the country and its place in the world, in the way the Labor Party sometimes has an America problem.

Whilst not a vote winner, if the Coalition want to ensure they have the confidence of those who watch foreign policy, and those who know the importance of China to our markets, then they need to sort out a coherent message on the issue. Where they should have been gaining points off the current governments troubles in recent weeks, they have managed only to send themselves backwards.

Clearly there is some division between the governments of China and Australia. My guess is that its a short term and inevitable issue, as China works out how far it can ‘persuade’ Rudd to fall into line, and once rebuffed will make only symbolic protests long term (expect another bout in December when the Dali Lama visits). China wont risk the long term relationship and its economy for these issues, but it will clearly try and exploit any disunity or weakness it can, meaning the Oppositions attacks (which Labor indulged in sometimes under Howard) end up making the governments job harder.

Working out how to think and speak about China is where Bishop should be primarily focused. Her boss clearly doesn’t have the time, or the background (though to be fair neither does she), but when the leader of the party is domestically focused, it falls to the Foreign Minister to set the tone for the parties view of international affairs and how each country fits into that overall pattern. Right now it seems the Coalition can’t decide if an emerging China is a good thing (for the wealth it brings), an unsettling challenge (that it is a authoritarian if not totalitarian regime), or an existential threat to the West and Australia’s cozy 200 year history within that hegemony. In truth, China is all these things and more, but Australia requires a governing party that is capable of handling this relationship. Even though Rudd is a china expert who has lived and worked in the country both as a diplomat and businessman his government is still finding it hard going. Until the Liberals, especially Julie Bishop on down work out how to ride the dragon without being eaten they can not be considered fit for government.

The End of the War on Terrorism?

Soon after the recent bombing in Jakarta killed 9 including an 3 Australians, Kevin Rudd along with his Foreign Affairs minister Stephen Smith sought to draw a link between the attack and continuing the fight in Afghanistan. Responses were swift rejecting the PM’s claim. Hugh White from ANU told journalist Michelle Grattan that

“in practical policy there’s no link. It’s an illusion to think that if you fix Afghanistan, we’ll be safe from terrorism.” Ideologically and practically, the activities of Noordin Top, the alleged mastermind behind the Jakarta bombings, have nothing to do with Afghanistan, White says.

Meanwhile over at the Interpreter Allan Behm makes the case that there is a connection:

the fact is that many terrorist groups, be they in Chechnya, Palestine, Pakistan or even Indonesia draw ideological, ideational, inspirational and motivational solace from the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and the actions of al Qaeda.
At the high end of anti-terrorist strategy is the goal of denying any oxygen at all to terrorist organisations and their followers. That is why the pursuit of al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is important.

So who is right amongst these two highly knowledgeable and respected experts? Well I side more with White’s approach, but he doesn’t explain this to its full significance. Behm’s point is well taken and worth noting. Whilst Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks on a US embassy in 1999, the USS Cole in 2000 and of course the 9/11 attacks, it has not had a recognised attack since that day. Despite it’s name being taken as a synonym for terrorism around the world, it has been reduced to little more than a communications company sending out videos, sometimes training orientated (and funds) but largely just well made propaganda. It is this which Behm means when he talks of providing solace and inspiration. Denied the opportunity to attack the west directly through international counter-terrorism efforts, Al Qaeda has had to outsource its efforts with varying results. How you interpret this effort is the clearest diviner of how experts regard the success or failure of the war on terrorism.

The worst case scenario tends to note details such as the 9/11 attackers had connections to Hambali the Indonesian terrorist who was key in the Bali 2002 attacks, or the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi leading Al Qaeda in Iraq . It sees the general values that motivate these groups in their Islamic faith, rejection of western modernity, and desire for independent Islamic states as primary compared to local values such as between various sects, personality and ethnic differences and on the ground conditions. It emphasises the flow of money, intelligence and training, especially through the internet between these various groups. Under this reading, the USA and west is facing an enemy who can change face and location with ease. Like trying to stop water flooding through a grill, each blockage in one place simply increases the pressure coming through in another. Our very size and strength makes us vunerable to a thousand cuts leaving us to bleed out, in finances, troops and resolve. This is also an approach that places great store in the concept of confidence. It interprets most events primarily in psychological terms, rising or reducing the motivation of both the west and the terrorists according to the ebb and flow of events. Every attack is seen as significant in re-enforcing this pattern. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is critically central to how events in Indonesia play out. (Afghanistan perhaps even more than Iraq or other locations due to its historic role in bringing down the soviet empire). This is a somewhat zero-sum approach, we are winning so they must be losing, or vice versa, with confidence a limited commodity effectively traded between the groups through their various successful or failed missions. At its worse this results in mush like Andrew Bolt’s effort, which conflates all threats as one, and indeed all Muslims as somehow suspicious. This however is very far from the considered approach of scholars such as Behm who highlights the significance of local links and issues. Still, for all their certainty, those who take this approach can as Behm does write sentences like “Noordin Top would derive considerable encouragement from that[withdrawal from Afghanistan], even without any formal or operational links with al Qaeda ” without ever qualifying what this ‘considerable encouragement’ means in practical policy terms. It could be meaningless heart warming or a game changing recruitment & financial driver. We don’t know and they don’t say.

The more optimistic scenario again notes these early links, but also their paucity and the local nature of the connections and the difficulty of maintaining these once key individuals are taken out (Hambali currently sits in Guantanamo Bay, the 9/11 attackers are dead, as is al-Zarqawi). They also note that when Al Qaeda has attempted to significantly involve itself in the local fight, the results have usually been poor. Whilst Al Qaeda in Iraq had a significant number of successes in the early years after the war, they have come to be combated by the US effectively. More importantly when they tried to integrate into the Iraqi system they ran into two fundamental problems. The sunni/shia divide, and the suspicions of the tribes. Where they had been largely non-sectarian in the early years, Al Qaeda found that the best way to bring in new recruits was to emphasize it’s Sunni origins, and help the fight against the true enemy: the Shia. This immediately cleaved the groups influence across vast sections of the islamic world, not only the Shia, but Sunni and other moderates who rejected the internal conflict and wanted attention focused on the West. Secondly, where Al Qaeda tried to integrate itself with the tribes it often did so in a ham-fisted, culturally insensitive manner (much like the US soldiers similar errors) It’s measures were often too extreme and lacked local knowledge and so came to be rejected by 2006 in the now infamous Al-anbar awakening where Tribal groups once supportive of the insurgents switched to help the US and gave the US it’s first big break of the war. This is a pattern that has been repeated around the world. Rather than Al Qaeda creating terrorist franchises as the pessimists had feared, we have seen that invariably local issues, personalities and conflicts have dominated and distracted the effort. Some groups have simply taken Al Qaeda’s money and men and used them for their own local pre-jihad efforts, whilst occasionally mouthing similar rhetoric to keep the cash flowing. Instead of a global war on terror we are seeing the emasculation of the worst of the groups (Al Qaeda), and a significant reduction in capabilities for their supported groups (Jemaah Islamiyah is still a shadow of its former self despite the recent attacks). And importantly the more the global group shrinks, the more the local groups will return to their own local concerns and local efforts, and fail to be drawn by the global values that once threatened to envelop the west. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is of minor concern. It may give an individual or group solace for a day or week, but very soon local realities like a lack of skills, funds or the omniprescence of the police will do more to change their actions than any psychological acts. Especially when the overall trend of the war has been quite strongly against the Jihadist’s. Psychology is important, but both groups can be gaining confidence whilst one side is technically ‘winning’ (ie a withdrawal from Afghanistan may not provide extra terrorists, whilst freeing up western resource – though I do not advocate such an act)

Whilst the recent attacks surprised some adherents of the common wisdom that JI was broken (Though perfect timing by Carl Ungerer to warn of the groups risks the day before the attacks), what it most significantly shows is that the ‘Global War on Terror’ is almost over. What we are facing instead are local threats from nihilistic, barbaric misfits of a form that states have been dealing with successfully for over two thousand years. Though these days we don’t use the gruesome techniques these groups were usually suppressed by (ie killing anyone and everyone related to the group), we have far superior tools through the information revolution to track, isolate and bring down such groups. We can shut off their funds, listen in on their communication and highlight their barbarism to win the PR war (there have been sharp declines in the support for suicide bombing across the muslim world from 2002-2007).

What is perhaps most significant about the recent attacks in Jakarta is how low key the public and press responded to them. The media brought information quickly to the public, but soon moved on from the story. The general public took it largely in their stride, with it barely meriting a mention in most people’s gossip over the weekend. This was terorrism without terror. Of course it may make many re-think that Indonesian holiday, but Australians have condemned, mourned, and gone on with life. This is a pattern of terrorism that we can live with, and take precautions against, in the same way we avoid dark city ally’s and ask for more cops to patrol our streets to keep away the drunks and street thugs. (If the government’s new anti-terror laws move in this direction of on the streets social changes, great, if not, it is an authoritarian over-reaction).This is not to downplay the threat that these groups could still do to many of us, but it is to suggest we have entered a new phase. One where this violence is seen for what it is, petty and unpredictable, but not threatening everyday life or the nation-state as it stands. And if the public here recognise this, then soon the local population in islamic countries who may otherwise fall under the sway of terrorist groups will recognise it too. And who want’s to die for a tiny group of losers who are never going to achieve their aims? We still have terrorism, but maybe we have almost ended the war.

The Birth of Australian Foreign Policy

Aus_Navy_NYToday brings with it the news that two Australian Navy ships have berthed in New York to help celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Great White Fleet voyage around the world. It might not be widely known, but in many ways, embracing Theodore Roosevelt’s aquatic demonstration of carrying a big stick, was also the birth of an independent Australian Foreign Policy.

In 1908 Prime Minister Alfred Deakin invited the American Navy on its global tour to drop in at Sydney and Melbourne. This move angered the English who were already concerned about losing their naval strength to the rising American forces, annoying amongst others one Winston Churchill, then serving as under-secretary for the Colonies. Reports suggest huge majorities of Sydney’s population turned up to welcome and cheer the incoming American Navy, no doubt glad if only for a moment of a guaranteed bulwark against the foreign forces to their north. Emboldened by this (and now returned to office after a short term by the supportive Labor’s Andrew Fisher) in 1909 Deakin pushed for the creation of a pacific pact involving the United States, France, China and the British Empire. The move failed, but is notable for such a small and at the time foreign policy shy country. Along with Fisher, Deakin also helped establish Australia’s Royal Navy. Yet the concern of the country was still inward and foreign policy involved persuading London rather than independent action. Even the volunteering of 300’000 men for WW1, and heavy casualty rates did little to stir Australians international attention. Whilst other colonies like Canada and South Africa made moves in the mid 1920’s to set up foreign diplomatic efforts, Australia was only forced by the ‘rude pressures’ of WW2 to begin similar measures. Foreign policy was largely outsourced to London. Yet as a country Australia retained great capacity for creative and skilled foreign policy when it so desired during these early years. This was no better demonstrated than in 1945 when Labor’s external affairs minister Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt was the single most prominent delegate at the UN founding conference in San Franscisco. Evatt pushed nearly 40 amendments, scored a number of significant victories in changing the charter and minds of the great powers, and was recognised for his efforts by becoming President of the U.N General Assembly.

By then of course Australia’s foreign policy had irrevocably changed. Britain had lost its empire, Curtin had turned Australia towards America ‘free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship’, and the nation set about establishing links with every country it could, including finally beginning to pay some attention to its own backyard in the shape of new relations with the major countries and initiatives such as the Colombo plan. But it all began in 1908 with Alfred Deakin’s decision to encourage the American ‘Great White Fleet’ to sail into ports in Sydney and Melbourne. It is therefore fitting that, having used US help to stand on our own two feet, we can now sail proudly into American harbours 100 years later to celebrate the milestone. Australian foreign policy is often presented by both conservative and progressive forces as a boring, subservient story hiding under the bosom of racially similar great powers. Yet the real story is one of independent and creative efforts. Where once we were shy and inward looking, today Australia is regularly accused of irrepressible activism (with its public ever leading the charge for more and more action). Despite the negative tone often attached to narratives of Australian Foreign Policy, it is a record it’s creators can be proud of. The country has at times had a significant role in promoting human rights and liberal democratic ideals, it has managed the tensions between the great powers and sucessfuly shifted without conflict from one sliding power (no less than it’s mother country) to a rising superpower. Today it walks a careful line between China and the USA earning respect and more importantly trade income from both. And most critically of all, the continent is safe and has remained so. All this began when in 1908, just 7 years into the new nation, Deakin was willing to cross the English to recognize the growing power of the US and begin to tie them to the land down under.

Below is an image Wikipedia turned up from the Fleets first visit. They don’t make government advertising like this anymore:


Charting the Iranian Revolt

Other sources have far better insights into what is going on on Iran, but I just want to make a couple of key points.
1. The issue is not the election but the break in the legitimacy that has occurred between the Iranian Government and the people. Iran has been ruled by fear for most of the 30 years since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but that military and material power was only significant so long as it seemed to re-enforce the already accepted legitimacy of the government. Poor economic and social policy in Iran has slowly weakened that link (the first role of any government is always to provide bread and circuses), such obvious and exaggerated efforts to control what was claimed to be a real election process have severely damaged that legitimacy bond. Even if, as expected the government violently cracks down and the protests fail to overturn the establishment, this makes a permanent new relationship between the people and the government of Iran. From now on, no public statement will be accepted at face value (ie “The US/Jews want your destruction”) and spending on programs that seem more about the wellbeing of the government (such as the nuclear program) will fall into significantly greater question.

2.The MSM is still critical, but despite our obsession with video and cable and the money put into TV news, most of the really big events in the world happen outside of a camera lens. Video is of course important, (Youtube videos are doing great job), but to properly understand what is going on in much of the world we need to rely on the flow of words and here at home in the west need trained professionals to wade through it to help provide the facts and filter out the falsities. As if we are all witnesses to a crime scene, everyone is talking and it needs wise heads to filter, edit, collate, and check. The best sources in following this story seem those using new media technology, but run by professional print journalists such as The New York Times Lede blog and Andrew Sullivan. The next generation of journalists for whom such social networking and publishing tools are as easy to adapt to as breathing will be a great sight to behold when going after a story. There are many very smart and switched on members of my generation using these technologies but I think this is more a transition generation with only some likely to get the best use of this technology. The media companies will also need to significantly update their online and published platforms to take advantage of this potential, right now they act to limit and punish those who attempt alternate methods or who take time away from standard reporting to engage such technology.

3. Technology obviously cant make revolutions, only people do. However the twitter network has really come into its own with the Iranian revolution*. Reports suggest that about an hour or so before the polls closed, the Iranian government acted to block SMS’s and severely limit the internet. Twitter, which can be accessed through a number of devices and mediums however has been able to escape some of this. If you are new to twitter go to which displays all the messages “tweets” sent under a particular topic heading. Try these for size #IranElection #Iran #Tehran.
Other digitial technology such as video’s on youtube and photo’s on flickr are also providing great on the ground details. If you are interested follow this handy guide on accessing the media flowing out of Iran & responses from the rest of the world. Of course with all these technologies rumors and false claims abound, so much of it is useless from a perspective of knowing what is definitely occurring, but it certainly gives you a sense of the sentiments, energy and fear that is happening in Iran right now. Either way, this is another instance of the way new technology is changing politics in ways which no one has fully figured out yet.
(*Though this is not the first twitter revolution, Moldova back in April has that claim)

4. This is not a fight the west should get into, particularly the United States. The Obama administration seems to have handled this well in a very low key fashion, emphasizing that this is an Iranian issue. Obama has to walk a fine line between supporting and giving encouragement to the protesters (which helps protect them indirectly from a violent government crack down), and staying out of the debate so as to prevent Ahmadinejad from claiming the protesters are tools of foreign governments. Some will doubtless attempt to make this a partisan issue, but really it’s a debate between idealists and realists. The idealists (the fringes on both the left and right) will say we should be as loud and aggressive in supporting the protests as possible , the realists (the vast vast majority) will recognise the very limited impact western commentary can have and the serious consequences if we make the wrong decision.
Secondly, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Mousavi is not quite the reformist character he seems in contrast to Ahmadinejad. Daniel Larison makes the point well. Interferring simply to replace one mob of self-interested politicians with another is not worth our time or the inevitable blow back should it fail (and even in success it hardly changes the likely facts of Iran’s move towards nuclear power/weapons and generic hostility to the west).
Despite this caution, I think Middle Power governments like Australia could do their bit to champion international action and recognition of the protesters. Nothing we do will be enacted, so therefore we have much more freedom to call for change.
Kevin Rudd has spoken often of his desire for Australia to engage in “creative middle power diplomacy”, here is his chance. That said, Australia has a lot to deal with at the moment, and engaging in largely symbolic efforts isn’t that great a use of our Prime Ministers time or spending down our national piggybank. But the Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith could really use this to try and increase his influence and stature worldwide in the way that Gareth Evans did to great effect during his 8 years as foreign affairs minister.

Right now my instinct is that there will be a crackdown (violently) over the next few days and the protests will fade away. But I’m much less sure of that today than I was yesterday, and same for the day before. Something is clearly happening, and as I alluded to at the start of this post, the critical issue of legitimacy is forever cracked. It will take a massive act, either true reform or outright fascism in order to overcome the fissures this election and it’s ham fisted theft have opened up.

Arounds the Traps

Sometimes there just isn’t time for 1000 words on a subject, and Thursday afternoon drinks are soon upon us. So some quick links & thoughts

Expected….Joel Fitzgibbon has resigned as Defence Minister. No word yet on a replacement (which is slightly odd considering this was either expected or going to occur whenever Rudd next shuffles the bench). Greg Sheridan’s usual talent at being spectacularly wrong in his predictions once again strikes. Fitzgibbon may have gone for ethical reasons, yet he clearly didn’t have control of the department. Defence needs a heavyweight who isn’t looking to fastrack their career (defence is usually where careers go to die). I’d suggest Bod Debus. He’s already the Home Affairs minister, and has been a minister at state level for over 20 years. Luckily whoever takes over will have the capable Mike Kelly and Warren Snowden supporting them. UpdateIt’s Faulkner. Great Choice, though he will be missed as Special Minister of State.

Developing…. Details are yet to emerge, but why did Rudd accept a Car as a gift? If this was whilst PM it’s a serious lapse of judgment. The PM has to be above reproach on these issues. It’s one thing Howard did rightly, and saved himself a lot of grief. Unlike many many of his ministers over the years.
Update – It was 13 years ago, and even Turnbull is saying the gift isn’t itself important. This will go no where

Cheap… For News Ltd’s new effort ‘Punch’ it seems words not actions matter and so manage to somehow blame Bob Hawke for China’s human rights violations over the past 30 years. All because he wouldn’t give them an interview.

Fools….The right wing still hasn’t worked out Obama’s talent with narrative. Far from having a fit, they should be welcoming this as one of the smartest moves in the political fight against radical jihadists in a decade.

Reading…Finally, as linked to the other day David Kilcullen’s new book ‘Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting small wars in the midst of a big one’ is a ripper of a read. I’ll have much more to say in the future on it. However having also heard him speak in person recently, what is most notable for this quasi-father of the Iraq Surge and 20 years infantry man is how little military actions play in his arguments for how to deal with terrorism. Drones, Battalions and even special forces are rarely mentioned or endorsed. They are important, but only in the way a chisel helps the sculptor achieve his desired shape. Despite having been a senior advisor to Condolezza Rice he is “broadly supportive” of the way Obama is going about the job. Efforts such as those linked immediately above are key reasons why. Whilst Fitzgibbon’s trouble with managing defence and Conservatives dominance in national security debates may lead some to think that the Left and the military don’t agree/work well, people such as Kilcullen* demonstrate there is a lot of common ground if smartly approached. There is no natural or ideological block to a left wing government having strong relations with the military and using it’s insights and strenghts, just as much as right wing hawks love to use the military’s cruise missiles. In fact I think many on the left would be surprised by just how receptive many in the military are to their ideas about how to fight this war on terrorism, and where our foreign policy priorities should be. But much more on that in a later post.

(* I have no idea of how he votes, nor would I like to speculate. And damn, even my link posts run to 600 words. You’d think given these tendencies a PhD of 100’000 would be easy…)