Thursday, 7 April 2011
Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable.
Hillary R Clinton 25 January 2011
You talk about the future. You know something? What is good about being foreign minister of the country: you get to do a whole lot of things which are half decent.
Kevin Rudd on Q&A
If, as the media keep telling us, that we already knew Gillard and Swan were for putting off the ETS, what’s the big deal about Rudd telling us again? You didn’t even have to be in on the Cabinet discussion, merely watching the new leadership campaign (or not) on the issue during last year’s election will tell you everything you need to know about Gillard’s attitude to the ETS – something we are now supposed to forget because apparently she wanted it all along, or something.
Maybe the breach in Cabinet solidarity’s a big deal, but then that’s been an up and front fact of Australian political life since that decision to defer the ETS was promptly leaked to the Fairfax press by … who?
It took a foreign affairs correspondent to begin to put his finger on the really extraordinary fact of Australian political life that was on display on Monday night’s Q&A – the way the Prime Minister has effectively handed control of foreign affairs over to her bitterest rival in the government.
When Stephen Smith said that there shouldn’t be a cigarette paper between the Prime Minister and her Foreign Minister, he wasn’t just talking about something nice to happen. He was pointing out what had been until now a basic fact of Australian political life.
The Australian political class is hugely dependant on what happens internationally, especially to whatever superpower it is clinging to at the time, and especially since the domestic agendas of the major parties has hollowed out over the last twenty years.
This reliance is an uncomfortable fact, so it is usually whitewashed out of the political narrative. So the 2001 election was all about Tampa and Howard’s ability to tap into the supposedly darker regions of the Australian electorate, rather than 9/11, and 2004 was all about voters not trusting Latham on interest rates rather than his promise to bring troops back by Christmas, a mistake that ended up with him joining that conga line of suckholes to proclaim his loyalty to the US alliance. In 2007, Rudd was vastly more popular than Howard because, er, he was so similar, rather than his latching on to a climate change agenda being far more in tune than a Prime Minister who was so out of touch that he called the next US President the preferred choice of terrorists.
When it’s not whitewashed out, it is usually turned upside down. So the left like to portray Australia leaders kow-towing to the US as a result of being some poor victim of colonial oppression from the big bad US, rather than the more painful truth of being part of a political class that needs all the help it can get.
Just how much, we are now seeing.
While Australian leaders have usually been coy about the international factor, or trumpeted up its role, as Howard did with Iraq, in 2007 something different happened. Instead of being defensive about Australia’s dependence on what was happening overseas, Rudd made a virtue of it. An important reason was that he was using it, like his hobnobbing with celebs at the 2020 Summit, as a way of filling the gap left by his agenda-less party.
For a while it seemed to work. Rudd seized a moment when the US was accommodating to the failure of Bush’s unilateralism and loss of global influence, summed up by the climate change agenda, an issue that did little for US prestige. The problem was that Obama could accommodate to the loss of US prestige but could not recover it, and without the US, the international agenda on which Rudd relied went nowhere.
Rudd saying on Monday night that he should have carried on regardless with the ETS was fantasy. With no international momentum behind him and little support from Cabinet, there was little he could do. What he was really saying was that he should have ignored his government and appealed over its head to the public, something he tried to do at the very end of his Prime Ministership and he looks determined to do now. In doing so, Rudd is using the very fluidity of the situation caused by the decline in US influence, that undermined his Prime Ministership, to now undermine Gillard’s.
As with so much with the Gillard government, the old leadership has returned to power stuck in the old framework and with the view that the problem was Rudd rather than the changed conditions that led to him taking power in the first place. So the same defensiveness about international affairs returned, but now in a caricatured form, summed up by Gillard telling the media she would rather be home watching kids learning to read than at a Summit where she was supposed to be calling for more support for Australian troops in Afghanistan.
Again as usual with this government, such as it dumping the ETS, having discovered its mistake it swings the other way but with no better results. Gillard’s trip to the US was meant to restore the US alliance at its place in Australian politics, but it highlighted that there is no basis for it. The US has no issue it wants an Australian Prime Minister to trumpet, not the Afghan war, not climate change. So leaving Gillard with little to do but get emotional about man walking on the moon (an event that Gillard was old enough to remember, but curiously not the Vietnam war on at the same time).
While Gillard keeps pressing the old buttons and finding they no longer work, Rudd is making hay out of the fluidity caused by US decline, and there was no better example than the one he was so confident about on Monday night, Libya.
The events in the Arab world this year have shown just how bad it has now got for the US. It would be tempting to see the uprisings as merely the last stages of the unravelling of the Cold War started twenty years ago in Eastern Europe. But this underplays its historical significance. It is not just that long-standing regimes are toppling, but the absence of any political veneer to the opposition.
In a way that was also the case for what happened in Eastern Europe, being more about crumbling Soviet dictatorships than a new political force. But at least then the US and the West was on hand to give a political rationale. What is striking about was is happening in the Arab world, especially in Egypt, was the complete inability of the West to have anything to say about it. Not only did the US State Department have no idea what was happening, for days while protestors occupied Tahrir Square the White House was paralysed to respond and give any sense it had influence over what had been the US’s most important client state. Obama couldn’t even get the day right when Mubarak would go.
Into this vacuum re-enter old players like Britain and France, and in Australia, Rudd. The opportunity came with the escalation of the conflict in Libya. Intervention in Libya was used not only by Britain and France (and Rudd) to play the world stage by being Pax Americana in its absence, but to allow the west look again in some control of what was going on.
The argument Rudd gave on Monday night was that in acting in Libya, the west prevented a massacre in Benghazi and supported the rebels to overthrow a corrupt regime. This sounds absolutely spiffing, until it is recalled how much thugs like Gadaffi have gained some credibility in the past from being attacked by the west. Indeed for Gaddafi, after decades of being the west’s bête noire, the problem was that there were now becoming too many photos like this and this. It is the very weakening of these regimes anti-west and anti-Israel card that is undermining them. Gadaffi might have taken Benghazi (not certain) but he never would have regained the authority. There is a danger that the west getting involved will have the opposite effect that its supporters hoped.
But this is all secondary because the main point, to look back in control, without actually committing to any ground troops has been achieved for now. In Australia, it has given Rudd authority against a party and a Prime Minister that doesn’t know now how to find it. A government with no real domestic agenda and struggling for authority is now finding any solution blocked by the one they overthrew. Something has to give, surely.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 7 April 2011.Filed under International relations