Lowy Institute

One word that keeps cropping up in the overnight hysteria about the movement of some Russian ships in the South Pacific is 'power'. But it is hard to see how that word applies.

Few terms generate more heat and less light in international relations than 'power', but the basic premise is that it involves Actor A behaving in such a way as to get Actor B to do something.

But if that is power, then there is nothing to see here. There is no evidence Russia is seeking to change Australia's behaviour over MH17 or at the G20, nor is there any likelihood that this sea cruise will have any effect on Australia's positions and attitudes.

A more subtle take is that this is not about using power so much as a 'demonstration of power'. But again, that claim is hard to justify. We already knew Russia spends more than double what Australia does on its defence budget and that it has a moderately large navy. So Russia does not need to demonstrate the existence of these assets. Nor is this a demonstration of willingness or capacity to use those assets. Russia will not use force against Australia because of some harsh words about MH17 or over any other issue on the table today.

This is not like the US sailing an aircraft carrier down the Taiwan Strait in 1996. In that case, the US was going through the motions of what it could do in a war-type situation, on an issue over which it is committed to use force. Some Russian ships hanging around PNG meets none of those criteria.

The take-away point here is the over-emphasis our society still places on material assets and 'hard power'. It's visible and easy to count, hence the proliferation of news stories. Everyone knows military power is vital in actual war-time scenarios. But outside of those times, I think we pay it too much attention in understanding how the world works.

As US President Barack Obama stated, Moscow is neither a super or great power, but a regional one. Nothing about this story challenges that claim. Russia has a stagnant economy which has been hit hard by the stock market and international sanctions. No matter how many ships Russia has, the illegitimacy of its actions in Crimea have led the world to punish Moscow in ways that are hurting. Just last month Russia's finance minister had to declare that the country 'couldn't afford' its proposed defence build-up.

As I've argued in other places, hard power is hard to use and often achieves far less in the international arena than autocratic leaders like to imagine. Twenty-five years ago the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR's military was powerless to stop it. Let's not indulge those who still can't get over this by rewarding the word 'power' for what is a mere sea cruise.

Photo by REUTERS.

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A favourite analogy of the Australian Treasurer is that the budget he delivered yesterday 'does the heavy lifting'. But like all weights regimes, we're first in for some visualisation and warm ups. 

The Treasurer's speech hit the right note by outlining the goal, with the Government recommitting  to spending 2% of GDP on defence within a decade. It's not quite clear when the Government intends to develop this muscle: did the clock start in 2013 when the Government was elected, in 2014 with this budget, or in 2015 with the new Defence White Paper?

We won't know until next year, with the promise that the White Paper 'will also set out how the Government will increase defence spending to two per cent of GDP'. Ideally the Government can also show that this is not some arbitrary target, but a necessary path to real strength. Still, setting clear goals is the start of a good regime.

After visualisation and verbalisation we got a dose of warmups. The Government has brought forward $1.5 billion from 2017-18, with about a $500 million increase this year. This is a welcome start after the cuts from 2009 to 2013, but it's not exactly a sign of strength. There is also the removal of 1200 civilian roles, hopes for $1.2 billion in savings via 'various initiatives to increase efficiency and reduce spending in lower priority areas' (to be re-invested in Defence) and a less generous superannuation scheme.

Counter-intuitively for a conservative government, the area where we saw the biggest desire to improve Australia's security was in the non-traditional sphere (let's call this the cardio package). While already announced, we saw the commitment to a large new agency, the Australian Border Force, to combine customs, immigration, and borders (this government seems to treat 'borders' as a good in and of itself).

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There was also $86.8 million to Indonesia to help deal with asylum seekers on their shores and $6.4 million for a 'dedicated position in Sri Lanka, the continuation of the Ambassador for People Smuggling Issues and annual Bali Process meetings at Ministerial and senior official levels'. All welcome steps for a government which took office decrying the worth of regional cooperation to deal with irregular migration. 

So as the Treasurer grabs a Gatorade and towels down, what level of effort should be recorded? The government turned up, wrote down its goals and conducted a vigorous warm up. But as everyone who has begun a gym program knows, the first session is easy. The resulting pain even seems pleasant, serving as proof of your new commitment. But it is going back on a regular basis to lift ever heavier weights that will be the challenge. 

Yet just that is what is required for defence funding to hit 2% of GDP. If that is to remain our target, then this is the beginning of a decade's worth of prioritising defence over many other popular issues, regardless of electoral pressures. This budget begins that task, but for the moment the really heavy weights are still in the rack, waiting to be hoisted. 

Photo by Flickr user jerryonlife.

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One area of policy difference between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard immediately raised after last night's leadership change is asylum seekers. After all, it's one of the biggest challenges in terms of policy and votes facing the Government, and Rudd famously declared he did not want to see the party 'lurch to the right' on the issue on the night he was deposed three years ago.

However, a left/right analysis of Rudd and Gillard's approach to the issue misleads far more than it reveals. Instead, there is a regional/domestic divide in their approach, and curiously enough, it's Gillard who is the regionalist.

Within two weeks of coming to power, Gillard declared in a speech to the Lowy Institute that she was working towards 'a regional approach to the processing of asylum seekers, with the involvement of the UNHCR, which effectively eliminates the on shore processing of unauthorised arrivals'. She also announced, pre-emptively it turned out, an agreement with East Timor to host a processing centre.

While that deal soon collapsed, Gillard's instincts continued to be regional. She and Chris Bowen put far more effort in to the Bali Process than Rudd had, and saw the (still weak) institution agree to a 'Regional Cooperation Framework', as suggested by the UNHCR. This included, for the first time, the discussion of a regional processing centre hosted in a Southeast Asian country. Gillard pursued a deal with Malaysia which was rightly criticised as too small and without sufficient protection of minority rights, but which could have been a framework for something sustainable in the longer term.

Of course, Gillard's plans were stymied by the High Court, the Coalition and the Greens, leading her to use domestic policy approaches and restore the Pacific Solution (the Manus Island and Nauru facilities are not 'regional' in any sense of significant cooperation; they are merely Australian-run detention and processing centres in locations outside Australia's legal framework).

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Rudd, by comparison, tried to use domestic measures to address the issue. He argued for restoring morality to Australia's approach, and ended some of the Howard Government's restrictions and policies. However he slowly began rolling back some of his changes as the boats began arriving. Rudd even used a flat-out ban on processing arrivals from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan in a desperate bid to stop the flow. Like almost all other domestic measures we've tried, none of this really worked. Yet for all his talk about engagement and Asia as a 'third pillar' of his government's foreign policy, Kevin Rudd did not want to involve the region in solving Australia's asylum seeker problem. If the comments by Bob Carr last night are any indication, the second Rudd Government will also focus on domestic approaches.

To borrow a line from the former PM, this regional/domestic divide doesn't explain everything about Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard's different approaches, but it does explain much of it.

There are two takeaways from this. One is that the story of how the Australian government has tried to solve the asylum seeker issue is far more complex and far more interesting than a simple left/right dichotomy. Gillard, like Howard before her, sought a regional approach. Rudd, like Keating before him, sought a domestic approach.

Which raises the second and perhaps unanswerable question: is there a link between the idealism which Rudd and Keating attach to concept of engagement and their unwillingness to pursue a regional approach on morally difficult issues like asylum seekers? In other words, is the idealistic conception of 'engagement' restricting actual engagement with Asia on issues that matter to Australians?

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Enny Nuraheni.

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Being a blogger often feels like going fishing. Every morning you cast your line out looking for something to catch and discuss. Some days there's lots of things about, sometimes nothing. Some days you try and catch a big fish to impress others (and usually miss), some days you put in a lot of time and struggle, only to reel in a minnow.

It's a great and rewarding pursuit, but I've come to realise that my knowledge of the bank and currents isn't yet good enough to compete with the pros. So, I'm hanging up my rod for the time being to go researching. I've accepted an Associate Lecturer position at ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. I'm hoping to spend a few years really getting to know my field, publishing and getting back into teaching.

I'd like to thank all the people at Lowy for their support, but especially Sam who has been an excellent boss and taught me a lot about this craft.

Cheers!

Photo by Flickr user faungg.

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British officials criticised his [Burton's] "extraordinary" views, such as that India and Indonesia were more important to Australia than Canada and South Africa.

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In the links last week I highlighted a survey of US international relations (IR) scholars. One question particularly leapt out: 'Which of the following best describes your approach to the study of IR?'.

While a colleague has noted that you'll never hear the word 'constructivism' inside the walls of DFAT*, it is the most popular IR discipline. In some ways this isn't too surprising, as constructivism is a new field with high research energy. But given the traditional dominance of realism, and the return to great power studies that has accompanied China's rise this century, I would have expected many more realists.

It may be that some realists are hiding their ideological colours under the 'I don't have a paradigm' option, but given this is a group of experts being asked about their identification, we must assume they had some reasons for not selecting realism. It is also likely that many realists have shifted over into security studies rather than IR, narrowing the pool of IR realists, without affecting the number of realists who study international affairs. Still, it's noticeable that while realists dominate the big names in public, they are not doing as well inside the disciplinary walls.

* In Gyngell & Wesley's 2007 book 'Making Australian Foreign Policy', they found 68% of DFAT staff identify as realists.

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One of the signature foreign policy moves of the Rudd Government was carried out in Canberra. Rudd centralised foreign and defence policy creation, not just into his department (PM&C), but in his office, including creating a new National Security Adviser as the PM's point man. Yet it seems his successor, Julia Gillard, isn't so taken with the changes:

The position of National Security Adviser has been vacant since early August, when the former SAS commander Duncan Lewis stepped down to become Secretary of Defence. And it is only one of six positions within the departments of Defence and Prime Minister and Cabinet that are being filled by acting staff.

The other five are: the two newly created associate secretary positions within Defence; the chief executive of the Defence Materiel Organisation; the deputy NSA; and DPMC's National Security Chief Information Officer.Mr Lewis' deputy, Margot McCarthy, has been the acting National Security Adviser since he left. Some believe that Ms Gillard and the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ian Watt, believe the role should not have the power it had during Kevin Rudd's prime ministership.

While sometimes there are inevitable delays, Gillard has run a more efficient ship-of-state than her predecessor, leading me to believe that it is a disinclination for a centralised security office in PM&C that better explains the delays. This not only fits with Gillard's lower level of passion for foreign policy than Rudd, but hopefully also a recognition that the system Rudd established didn't work.

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For all his many strengths as a policy thinker (I still defend the APc concept), Rudd ended up a lone ranger, with poor implementation, organisation and paper flow leading to delays and missed opportunities. All PMs might wish to focus on foreign policy, but there are always going to be too many distractions in the domestic sphere for foreign and defence policy development to be the PM's role.

While it would be a shame to lose the NSA role, if Gillard really is moving policy creation and management back to DFAT and Defence (leaving PM&C to coordinate), it will be to the benefit of Australia's foreign policy. PMs are always tempted to centralise, so it's to Gillard's credit that she's reversing the trend in this area.

Photo courtesy of PM&C.

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Since he's too modest to post it himself, here is Sam Roggeveen on Bloggingheads.tv

 

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