Asia: the last refuge of scoundrels

Saturday, 16 June 2007 

Third time lucky perhaps?

After the coalition wasted two opportunities to gain control of the global warming debate; firstly with the Budget of the inept Treasurer and secondly with Howard’s climate change taskforce, it probably has one last opportunity in the APEC meeting in September. Howard has been busy in New Zealand putting together a joint working group over the last few days in preparation for APEC and The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan, who has been talking up the potential of the APEC meeting, had a fairly considered review of the climate change debate last week.

APEC is the best shot as it gets closest to what the climate change agenda is about, international diplomacy. No one in this country likes to say it, but international politics determines the parameters of Australian political debate. It is the government’s falling out of step with the shift in the global agenda that has been the ultimate source of its problems this electoral cycle.

There has been some heavy-handed irony made of the Howard’s government reliance on a regional forum given its professed disdain of Labor’s regional focus. However, the debate about whether Australia should have a regional focus is rather false as it has always had one. Besides the fact it would be a geophysical impossibility not to, Australia started its nationhood as an agent for British colonial interests in the region and it was the international edge to the White Australia Policy. Whether it is the UK or US, Australia’s relations with these powers has always rested on what it can do for them in the region and it is why Australia has rarely avoided a regional military conflict.

Where the regionalism debate comes from is when the interests of the great powers are disrupted and Australia is left to deal with the vacuum. There was a brief period after the fall of Singapore when the regional debate came to the fore and again with the collapse of US interests in Vietnam. The regional policy was also obvious during the 1990s, when the framework for international relations drifted after the end of the Cold War. It was during that time that Keating persuaded a reluctant Clinton to beef up the APEC talking shop started by Hawke. Howard is hoping that he can do the same again with Bush and use the APEC meeting to set up an alternative to the European climate change agenda.

Unfortunately, the US does not do regionalism. For it to align itself, say, with the APEC countries would be to implicitly reduce its influence with Europe, something a superpower like the US cannot afford to do. This has been the painful lesson of the Iraq war that is causing such anguish in the US political class. It is why Bush was forced to tag along with the Europeans in Rostock. Shanahan’s article, along with most of the Australian press, have glided over what happened, but the US got rolled. It went in trying to prevent the setting of firm emission targets, the European ignored him and Bush was left to go away and think about it.

That is a situation that is intolerable to the US and right now the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are discussing how to regain lost influence. If Bush came to Sydney in September with the idea of setting an alternative agenda to the Europeans, he would represent no more than a weakened and desperate administration rather than the US political class as a whole.

The funny thing on all of this is that Australia doesn’t do regionalism neither. Australia has a highly unusual international position based on its role as client state par excellence which seamlessly made the transition from one global superpower to another as the US took over the UK’s lead. From Doc Evatt becoming the UN’s first Secretary General to the regular flattery from the US administration, Australia has always got away with pretending it had an influence above its weight, as seen by the government laughably posing Australia as one of a coalition of three in Iraq.

Keating’s ‘regionalism‘, as with much of the agenda of his last term, was making a virtue out of a problem (as he also tried with the Mabo mess) and fill the gap left by the end of the Labor’s traditional project. But any loss of Australia’s global pretence is unlikely to generate enthusiasm, which is why Howard campaigned successfully against Keating’s regionalism. Howard’s regionalism now looks to be doing the same thing. It is trying to make a virtue out of the fact it has tied itself to a US administration that has lost influence internationally, and therefore within its own political class. Howard runs the risk of the same happening to him.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 16 June 2007.

Filed under Tactics

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