APEC: The summit nobody wants

Monday, 3 September 2007 

Back in June this blog suggested that APEC would provide Howard with one last, outside, chance of catching up with the shift in the international agenda from Iraq and the War on Terror to climate change. It is the inability of the government to keep up with that shift that, in this blog’s view, is the critical difference to the government’s current electoral standing compared to 2001 and 2004.

Instead Howard’s response to his problems with the international agenda was to shift the debate away from it altogether. First there was Howard’s intervention into the NT indigenous communities, a sort of internal ‘Iraq’, but where land rights lobbyists have proved much easier to manage than Shiite militia. Then there was the disastrous move into even more local issues with his War on the States.

Having forced the debate away from international issues, Howard is now being forced to turn back to them with the APEC summit, but now has little basis on which to do so. Climate change has barely been mentioned by the government since its carbon emission trading plan in July so any action at APEC will look insincere. Howard has been playing with a fantasy that he can use APEC to set up a parallel forum for dealing with climate change against the ‘Eurocentric’ Kyoto framework. But even China, left out of Kyoto, has made clear that any APEC proposals should be seen in the Kyoto and UN framework. China is rising as a global player and has no interest in locking itself out of the international framework. Neither does the US. It has never been comfortable with regional forums like APEC as a political body, even during Clinton’s time, and has sent a clear message on what it thinks of this one with both Bush and Condoleeza Rice leaving before the final day of communiqués. Both countries recognise that climate change is becoming the language of international relations and neither can afford to promote a solution that excludes Europe. Howard will not get an alternative from APEC and his wish for it only shows that he cannot adapt to events.

While Howard is struggling with the new, neither can he move on from the old. Iraq, once a favourite topic of the PM, has been even less talked about than climate change. It has barely been mentioned since his abortive trip to the war zone and the Obama gaffe at the start of the year. Bush’s visit will force the Man of Steel to stand up for an issue he clearly no longer wants to talk about.

Yet what is bad news for Howard is not necessarily good news for Rudd. Rudd may talk tough defending Labor’s Iraq stance but in reality it is only feasible because the US is also abandoning Bush’s strategy. The problem for Rudd is that the US, even on the Democrat side, has yet to work out what is to replace it. This is why Rudd is reluctant to be pressed on the Iraq timetable as in the end it will not be up to him, but how things pan out in Washington. Similarly on climate change, while becoming the international orthodoxy, it is not established enough for Rudd to translate it to a domestic agenda (which is why he has delayed details of how emission targets will be met until after the election). Labor’s heavy reliance for its alternative on international trends that are still uncertain and out of its control, is the fragility that lies at the heart of its case for government. It is why Rudd has never really resisted Howard’s turn away from international issues over this year and why he will be unwilling to make too much of Howard’s disappointments at APEC.

The lack of real enthusiasm from Australian political leaders for this summit leaves its purpose unclear to the electorate. Combined with all the security inconvenience that high profile events create these days, it has laid the grounds for a pollie-bashing festival, because if there is one thing more irritating than paying for national politicians, it is paying for those of another country. Some commentators have implied that any violence will politically benefit Howard, but it is unlikely. The protests are already trying to tap into this anti-politics feeling, so draining them of any real content. It is more likely to be seen as just part of the inconvenience of hosting such an international event. When the dignitaries have gone, it is likely that it will not just be Sydney-siders who will be relieved that Australia will not have to host APEC again for another twenty years.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 3 September 2007.

Filed under International relations

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