Read through

Friday, 11 April 2008 

Maybe the Chinese were too polite to ask, but they may have wondered why the high-powered delegation to a meeting in Beijing that would form the centre of Australia’s foreign policy did not include the Foreign Minister but did have the Minister for Climate Change.

The Chinese visit has neatly brought out the new parameters of Australian foreign policy and the role it plays in Australia’s domestic politics. On the one hand we saw in action one of the most diplomatically active Prime Ministers Australia has had for some time. This is not because Rudd is engaging in ‘middle power’ diplomacy. Indeed one of the reasons Rudd needed to make his controversial speech at the Beijing University was to reassure audiences here that he was not going down the middle power road and do what some had feared, get too close to China at the risk of the US alliance. As Rudd constantly repeats, keeping close to the US is at the bedrock of Australia’s foreign policy.

However, the point is that the US’s position is changing. The loss of global leadership during the Bush administration is the problem that both Democrat and Republican candidates are grappling with this year. It is being discussed through the two ways the US political establishment is feeling that loss of authority, the Iraq war and the rise of China. Rudd’s main job in this tour has been to adapt Australia’s foreign policy to deal with both.

Rudd has first shifted the focus of Australia’s military involvement from the mess in Iraq, where hardly anyone followed the US, to the mess in Afghanistan, where everyone has gone. Shifting the focus away from Iraq is something Howard probably would have also done, however, his political authority in Australia was too tied up in it to enable him to survive to carry that out. Rudd’s commitment for more troops to Afghanistan following his attendance at the Nato summit has caused much less fuss than Howard’s Iraq commitment. Opposition to Iraq was always less about the ethics of invading another country than the unilateral nature of it. Since that is not the case for Afghanistan, it is likely to be much less controversial.

It is also likely to be much less useful politically. There was always an underlying internal dimension to the Iraq invasion, that it made the country more likely to be singled out for terrorism. This link only used to be openly made by those opposing the war but it was always implicit behind those supporting it and was the assumption hidden behind the introduction of Ruddock’s anti-terrorism laws in 2004. With Afghanistan being a global jamboree, there is likely to be less argument that Australia’s involvement will have a domestic read-through.

What will have a domestic read-through is the second area that Rudd needs to deal with, China. When Bush said that he values Rudd’s expertise on China, he didn’t mean that there were manpower problems at the US State Department. What Bush meant was that Australia was expected to play its part in bringing China into the international order set up by the US. By this it means placing hoops in front of China to get them to jump. Tibet has been one in the run up to the Games. However, after the Games the more enduring one will be climate change, hence the presence of Penny Wong.

Just as residents of Sydney or south-eastern Queensland are being told that poor infrastructure spending on water (such as they have also seen on roads in Queensland or the railways in Sydney) is really their responsibility on how much water they are using, so the Chinese are being lectured on not adding to the carbon levels already put there by the developed world. Climate change is not only being used at the level of personal behaviour but to rework the federation, and now fresh from the COAG meeting over the Murray, Wong is being brought in to front the Chinese.

What we are seeing is a direct read through of foreign affairs into Australian politics that doesn’t happen very often. Even during the War on Terror, translating it into support for anti-terrorism measures at home never really happened, especially among the legal profession that was supposed to uphold it, leading to the Haneef fiasco. This time, however, the global agenda of climate change is something that is now becoming embedded in the Australian body politic. This direct read through of domestic and international politics is why we now have a Prime Minister with the skills of a high-powered diplomat and a Minister who spend her time between dealing with the South Australian Premier and the leaders of one of the most powerful nations on earth. It leaves little for the Foreign Minster to do but to stay at home and tell us what it means.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 11 April 2008.

Filed under International relations

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