Jetting off in search of a program

Saturday, 29 March 2008 

What on earth is Rudd on about with his ‘middle power’ diplomacy?

Australia may be ranking 14th or whatever, but international diplomacy is not the City to Bay Fun Run. No-one cares how far down you are in the ranking, you are either in the leading pack or not, and Australia is not. Australia’s diplomatic impotence is evident in the latest bout of Great Power Games in the run up to the main event in Beijing in August. Even when he was espousing the new middle way to The 7.30 Report’s Ali Moore , Rudd was unable to join in at the risk of offending those on either side.

A Third Way has especially never been seriously considered by this middle power. Australia’s foreign policy has been basically to cling to the leading global power, whether the UK or US, as tightly as possible. Of course it has meant the death of Australian servicemen on irrelevant ventures from the high cliffs of the Ottoman Empire to the Ho Chi Minh trail. But it has enabled little frauds like Howard to strut around major global playing fields like Iraq as though he was a serious player.

The meat and bones of Rudd’s tour shows little difference. He is being as seriously treated in Washington as Howard. He has joined all the major allies of the US of distancing themselves from Iraq with a token withdrawal of Australia’s token presence there. But his unusual presence in the US’s main military forum, NATO, shows his commitment to the renewed focus in Afghanistan (which is as a big of a mess as Iraq, but since everyone is involved, no-one seems to mind). Michelle Grattan summed it up when she described Rudd’s foreign policy as just a busier commitment to the US alliance than the Liberals.

But Rudd is not talking about a ‘middle power’ diplomacy for nothing. Rudd has been unusually sensitive to criticisms of this trip. He touched on the reason with this rather strange, but highly revealing, motivation for the tour.

The options are … to sit at home and watch the global financial crisis unfold on CNN or to get out here and do something about it.

Sitting and watching the economic crisis unfold on TV neatly sums up the impotence of a government without an economic policy. The Liberals have criticised the PM for going off on such a long trip in the run up to Budget. But the Budget will hardly be unveiling a major new economic initiative. Trimming spending to meet the undemanding surplus targets (given the state of revenue) should be well within Tanner’s capabilities. Let’s face it, if the Budget process was important, Swan would not be in charge of it.

This lack of a domestic agenda is what drives Rudd abroad to be seen doing something. Howard also used the international agenda to fill a vacuum at home, but more to pretend that he still had a domestic agenda to be a conviction politician about. Rudd came to power exposing that for a middle economic power like Australia, it is not really possible to have any effective economic policy against the global markets. This admission, politely known as ‘respecting the independence of the Reserve Bank’, now makes it even more important for Rudd to be looking as though he is developing a distinct agenda overseas. This domestic policy vacuum is why Rudd needs to present what is basically the continuation of Australia’s US alliance as a new direction, but this vacuum is also why Rudd will be defensive about justifying such overseas trips until he has done so.

Although this will have to be done while remaining firmly attach to the US’s underbelly, there should be some opportunities. Rudd has shown willingness to go to the NATO summit in Bucharest as an enthusiastic cheerleader for increasing commitment to Afghanistan, with Australia’s 1,000 troop commitment set to rise.

Rudd is also clearly determined to help the US accommodate itself to the changing world order. This assistance to the US should be able to be presented to Australian audiences as this ‘Middle Power’ diplomacy. For example, Bush’s interest in Rudd’s view on China allows him to be the go-between for the two powers, giving the US greater room to publicly carry on China-bashing for political purposes.

And of course, there is global warming. All of the US presidential candidates are seriously considering how to recapture the US’s lead over this agenda. Australia’s adoption of Kyoto in Bali may have given the Europeans a useful stick with which to beat the US in the short term, but Australia’s role is likely to be more about paving the way for the return of US influence in this diplomatic bunfest. This will be the move that will have the most payback at home and help in giving this government a sense of purpose to the electorate. It will give Wong and Garrett plenty to do while Swan carries on with his increasingly irrelevant job.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 29 March 2008.

Filed under International relations

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