Lowy Institute

One of the striking things about the Australian debate on Crimea is that there hasn't been one. Events in Crimea may have serious consequences for the world order, yet with some honourable exceptions, the issue has not been addressed in Australia with either thoughtfulness or urgency.

In particular, where are the voices on the left speaking out against Russia's sinister and brutal conduct against its smaller neighbour, Ukraine? Did Crimea appear on any of the placards in the March in March (pictured)? Where are the outraged op-eds?

Imagine if the US were moving tens of thousands of troops, wearing uniforms without national insignia, into a bordering country on a trumped-up pretext. Imagine if Washington were fomenting, and then exploiting, secessionist fervour. Imagine if the Americans were annexing and formally absorbing chunks of other countries. The resulting brouhaha would envelop Australia. Parliament would be seized of the matter. The letters pages would be groaning with denunciations. The streets would be full of protesters. Essays would most certainly be written.

Yet Russia has done these things, and the reaction has been indifference.

The only peep I've heard is from Antony Loewenstein in The Guardian Australia. I encourage everyone to read Mr Loewenstein's article, purely for its comic value. He makes a few cursory references to the unpleasantness of the Putin regime, in particular its homophobia. But when it comes to what he coyly describes as Russia's 'involvement' in Ukraine, Mr Loewenstein is silent. For him, the real villains are the Western media – which he faults for running unflattering pictures of a shirtless Mr Putin – and, naturally, the US.

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Of course! Washington is to blame! With its 'record of flagrantly breaching international law', says Mr Loewenstein, it would be hypocritical for Washington to criticise 'potential Russian breaches of law.' (Notice that while Washington's breaches are flagrant, Moscow's breaches are only potential.) Somehow an article about Russia's invasion of its neighbour becomes a discussion of neoconservatism in the State Department. I'm surprised Mr Loewenstein didn't follow his reasoning to its logical conclusion and blame Tony Abbott too.

Mr Loewenstein and his friends complain about double standards. But they also practice them.

Silence and indifference are not confined to Australia, of course. We have not yet heard from Edward Snowden, who lies secure in the bosom of the KGB. Yesterday the Washington Post published another Snowden leak on the NSA. Isn't it an interesting coincidence that none of the zillions of documents that Mr Snowden stole seem to reflect poorly on Mother Russia?

And what of Julian Assange, late of the Russia Today network? The other week he poked his head up on a screen at South by Southwest to implicitly endorse the annexation. 'Geopolitically, it is utterly intolerable for Sevastopol to fall into the hands of NATO,' he opined. (Mr Assange fancies himself as a grand strategist.) That would be 'an existential threat to Russia.'

I am a supporter of Australia's alliance with the US; I think America's effect on the world is largely benign. However, when Washington launched its wrong-headed and foolhardy invasion of Iraq, I opposed it publicly.

But then, I see consistency as a virtue.

Photo by Flickr user David Burke.

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Today we're proud to launch a new look for The Interpreter.

The Interpreter began in November 2007 when it was unusual for a think tank to engage in daily online commentary and analysis. The field is now more crowded, but The Interpreter remains not just Australia's premier international policy forum but a strong voice in Asian and American foreign policy debates. It is a globally recognised site with a distinctly Australian character.

At the core of The Interpreter's success is the hundreds of researchers, journalists, diplomats, academics, officials, political leaders and readers who have contributed over the years. Thank you for taking part in what has become such an indispensable part of the online conversation about world events.

This new design modernises the look and feel of the site, will add improved features for reader commentary and will be easier to read on tablets and mobiles. It ensures that The Interpreter remains at the forefront of online policy commentary and analysis, and gives us a platform to reach new audiences. We hope you enjoy it.

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Election Interpreter 2013

Over the coming days, we kick off our election coverage with short posts from our experts on what they regard as the most important international policy issue of this campaign.

I will be happy if international issues get a proper airing of any kind during the campaign. That is rarely the case. Federal election campaigns are generally very insular affairs – to the country's detriment.

Australia is not a small, isolated country and we should not conduct our election campaigns as though we are. We are a nation with global interests. We have the 13th largest economy in the world. We have a long record of contributing to regional and global security, including through our alliance with the US.

Australia has now joined the world's two most important economic and political forums, the G20 and the UN Security Council. This gives us a new prominence in global affairs and new opportunities to realise our prosperity and security. But membership of these institutions is testing us as a country. Our leaders need to engage on a much broader range of global issues, at a higher level and at a faster pace, than they ever have before. Above all, to justify our place at the big table, Australia will need big ideas.

Hopefully, some of these ideas will emerge during the next five weeks.

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Part 1 of this series by Lowy Institute research staff here; part 2 here; part 3 here; part 4 here.

Burmese Days by George Orwell. Selected by Michael Fullilove.

My book of 2012 was first published in 1934. George Orwell's novel Burmese Days is a grim but vivid account of life in Burma in the 1920s and a powerful indictment of British colonialism.

The novel is based on Orwell's own service in Burma as an imperial policeman between 1922 and 1927. The chief protagonist is John Flory, a teak merchant operating out of an obscure settlement in northern Burma. Flory has been nearly ruined by his booze-sodden, wanton life in colonial Burma, but the arrival of a beautiful young Englishwoman offers him the hope of redemption.

As journalist Emma Larkin points out in her excellent introduction to my 2009 edition of Burmese Days, 'it is a curious twist of fate that Orwell's later novels have mirrored Burma's recent history. In Burma today, there is a joke that Orwell didn't write just one novel about the country, but three; a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.'

Since the publication of this edition, however, Burma's national story has taken a remarkably positive turn, one that was not anticipated in any of Orwell's writings. Under the presidency of Thein Sein, the military regime has loosened its grip on the country. Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest and earlier this year her party scored a landslide victory in parliamentary by-elections. The future is uncertain but hopeful. George Orwell, I think, would be amazed and delighted.

I will be visiting Burma early in 2013 and I will post my own first-hand impressions of the country then.

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Yesterday, I launched my new research paper, The Audacity of Reasonableness: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, US Foreign Policy and Australia. I should thank the Republican candidate Mitt Romney for choosing to give a major foreign policy address on the same day as the launch. 

In my analysis, I argue the similarities outweigh the differences when comparing the foreign policies of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, including areas that matter for Australia.

President Obama is not as left-wing and dovish as many believe and Governor Romney is not as right-wing and hawkish as he would have us believe.

For those who weren't able to make it to the launch, here's the video of the event.

 

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There was sad news for the entire Australian foreign policy community last weekend when we heard of the passing of Dr Coral Bell.

Coral was a giant of the Australian foreign policy scene and an internationally renowned scholar. She was known to many of us at the Lowy Institute. She published one of the earliest and still one of the best Lowy Institute papers, The End of the Vasco da Gama Era. In recognition of her contribution to the field, my predecessor Allan Gyngell named an annual lecture after her.

We will have tributes to Coral on The Interpreter over the coming days, but for now, on behalf of the Lowy Institute, I pass on my condolences to Coral's family, friends and colleagues.

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For Mitt Romney and the Republican Party, it was a Not-So-Super Tuesday.

Romney is still likely to win the GOP nomination for president. He has more money and staff than his opponents. The Republican Party has a long history of nominating the guy who was the runner-up last time, as Romney was. As the most qualified and centrist candidate in the field, he has the best chance of winning the general election in November – which should count for something.

However, the primary process has exposed Romney's frailties. When it comes to politics he is, to put it gently, not a natural. He is disliked by much of the Republican base for his indeterminate policy positions. And he is a private equity plutocrat running at a time when American workers are worried about their jobs.

Romney might well make a good president but he is not a good presidential candidate. Super Tuesday provided further evidence of his weaknesses. He won six states and a lot of delegates. Importantly, he squeaked in in Ohio, a state with a storied history in Republican nominating contests.

But this was hardly a decisive national victory. Romney proved weak in the South and with evangelical and working-class voters. He lost Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota to Santorum, and Georgia to Newt Gingrich. And it is rare for a Republican front-runner to come so close to losing Ohio.

All this was despite the fact that he outspent his rivals four to one. We can safely say that Mitt Romney won't be making a cameo appearance on the TV series 'The Closer.'

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It is not as if his rivals are superstars, either. Santorum is a second-tier conservative who lost his bid for re-election to the Senate in 2006. Gingrich is an eccentric figure who mucked things up for the Republican Party the last time he held national office. He closed down the US government because President Bill Clinton made him sit at the back of Air Force One. He proposed the establishment of a human colony on the moon and suggested its inhabitants petition for US statehood. The chap carries more baggage than the handlers at Kingsford Smith Airport. Finally, Ron Paul may be a fashion icon, but he will not be president.

Long nominating struggles do not always foretell doom, as we saw in the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008. But Obama and Clinton were each, in their own way, dream candidates; many Republicans would say that, in 2012, their field is a nightmare.

Furthermore, 2008 was an open presidential race, in which both parties held nominating contests. In 2012, by contrast, Obama is running as the incumbent. He is free to steam right up the middle of the strait like a battleship, while the Republican fast boats dart about in the shallows, firing mainly at each other.

Despite the hysteria of his critics on both the left and right, the odds have favoured Obama's re-election for a long time. American presidents usually get re-elected unless they face a serious primary challenge. Incumbency clothes them in the raiment of national leadership. It also gives them some ability to control events – as we saw with Obama's operation to kill Osama bin Laden, for example, or his plan to rescue the car manufacturers.

Vice President Joe Biden is not known for being brief. But a few months ago he proposed this succinct argument for re-electing the Administration: 'Osama bin Laden is dead; General Motors is alive.'

They are not yet serving boat drinks in the White House: with unemployment still above 8%, Barack Obama is more than capable of losing this election. But those Americans who still own their houses shouldn't bet them on that proposition.

Photo by Flickr user NewsHour.

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Ed. note: this is Michael's belated but welcome addition to a series we ran in December.

My consumption of other people's books in the past year has been slowed somewhat by the fact that I'm writing one of my own.

Like Michael Wesley, I enjoyed Hellhound on his Trail, Hampton Sides' suspenseful account of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the hunt for his killer, James Earl Ray. 

However, my favourite history book of 2011 was Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, a pacy account of the Berlin adventures of William E Dodd, Franklin D Roosevelt's ambassador to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Dodd was an obscure and unassuming professor at the University of Chicago when Roosevelt tapped him for the Berlin embassy. He was an unlikely interlocutor for Adolf Hitler and his gangster regime. Dodd's daughter Martha was more comfortable in this sinister milieu, having love affairs with a Gestapo chief and a Soviet spy.

After lingering over the Dodd family's first year in Berlin, the book unaccountably spins through their remaining years in the capital at a breakneck pace. Still, it provides a remarkable view of the nest of vipers that was Hitler's Berlin. Highly recommended.

Marcus Aurelius' volume of Stoic philosophy, Meditations, may not sound like an easy read. But after years of good intentions, I finally pulled it out on the bus — and, to my surprise, enjoyed it. With its emphasis on the ephemeral nature of human existence and the need to live a good life, Meditations is a bracing corrective to the glitter and flim-flam of modern society. I'm bemused to find out that Bill Clinton reads this book every year. Clinton has many virtues, but I would not have thought a Stoic approach to life was one of them.

Next on my reading pile is Simon Sebag-Montefiore's Jerusalem: The Biography. Montefiore's books on Stalin are brilliant, and his deep family ties to the Holy City add extra interest to his latest book. After that, I'll want something to get the blood pumping — perhaps Robert Harris' new thriller The Fear Index.

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Reading The Daily Telegraph's snarky little article on Kevin Rudd's overseas travel this morning, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

The Tele reports breathlessly that he has 'notched up a staggering 384,000km in overseas air travel since becoming Foreign Minister – the equivalent of flying to the moon.' Taxpayers have 'forked out hundreds of thousands of dollars to fly Mr Rudd and his entourage on the equivalent of 10 around-the-world trips since September.'

So this is what it's come to: we complain when the foreign minister visits foreign countries.

We should be complaining if the foreign minister did not visit foreign countries. I feel like I've entered Jerry Seinfeld's 'Bizarro World', where up is down and down is up.

Meeting with foreigners is a large part of the foreign minister's job. And it's not always possible for foreigners to get to Canberra for meetings.

This is a classic – no, an epic – example of small-country thinking. It reveals a depressingly shrunken opinion of Australia's possibilities. Do we really take such a straitened view of Australia's role in the world that we cavil at the cost of airline tickets for the person responsible for managing our international relations?

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And does anyone really think this is pleasure travel for the minister and his staff? The media spends a good deal of time poking fun at Mr Rudd's frenetic schedule. Try to imagine what these trips are like. I doubt there's much time spent at the hotel spa. I'd say it's one airport lounge and meeting room after another.

Too often, the press gallery engages in this kind of pettifoggery – obsessively monitoring politicians' salaries and counting up their mobile phones and entitlements and trips. The truth is, this stuff is trivial next to the important issues being debated in Parliament House. Over-emphasising it cheapens our national discourse and lowers the value we place on public service.

Other countries of Australia's size and reach do not distract themselves with this nonsense. Australia is the only serious country that would have a debate about whether the advantages of membership to the UN Security Council – the world's premier crisis-management forum and the pointy end of the international system, no less – is worth the price of campaigning for it.

Do you think the American media queries the travel undertaken by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? Quite the reverse: the fact that she has traveled more than half a million miles for her job is seen as a positive! It's quoted approvingly in profiles in Vanity Fair. It demonstrates that she is out there prosecuting her country's interests and advocating its values.

So much so, indeed, that Clinton has her own travel page on the State Department's website, which includes a mileage meter and indications of days traveled and countries visited. She doesn't do this to satisfy her critics, or head off FOI requests. It's an indicator of energy and ambition. In fact, in his address on the Middle East last week, her boss President Obama actually overstated Clinton's travel for effect, saying that she was approaching the one million frequent flyer mile mark.

I was sorry to see the Liberal foreign affairs spokesperson, Julie Bishop, and former foreign minister Alexander Downer pipe up on this issue. It sets an awful, self-defeating precedent for Ms Bishop should she ever become foreign minister. As for Mr Downer, I'll simply say that I preferred the argument he made in his 2007 Playford Lecture, when he accused his opponents of running a 'Little Australia' campaign and ignoring Australia's 'responsibilities as a significant global citizen'. He urged them to 'think big'.

That's excellent advice for all concerned. Think big.

You can follow Michael Fullilove on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.

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4 of 16 This post is part of a debate on WikiLeaks

I would add a few points to Rory's excellent first cut at WikiLeaks' implications for the international system:

1. The randomness of the State Department dump is disturbing. Such a disclosure will inevitably have some good consequences; it will also have many evil ones. US contacts will be identified by security services that are less fussy about human rights than the FBI or the Justice Department. Peace processes will be compromised. Representatives of civil society in harsh places will be less willing to speak with foreign diplomats.

I have no confidence that Julian Assange and his anonymous colleagues have exercised their duty of care to maximise the good and minimise the evil. Mr Assange's scary Orwellian diktats to his browbeaten colleagues reveal that robust, collaborative internal decision-making processes are foreign to WikiLeaks.

2. The rationale for the dump is incoherent. What is the justification for dropping a quarter of a million cables, from diplomatic missions all over the world, on every topic under the sun? It's one thing for a whistleblower to expose a particular piece of information relating to one abuse of power: even that is a serious act entailing a very heavy responsibility.

But with this dump WikiLeaks is not uncovering a particular secret; it is outlawing secrets altogether.

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Does Mr Assange really believe no-one is entitled to secrets? Would the world be safer, saner or more pleasant if nothing could be held in confidence? How could wars be averted in such a world? How could peace negotiations take place? Would news sources talk to journalists? Would business be done and jobs created? Could families enjoy each other's company? (I wonder whether the recent posting of Mr Assange's online dating profile will alter his view that transparency must trump every other right and every other interest. I will not link to the profile because I believe people have a right to privacy.)

3. It seems that Mr Assange has something against diplomacy. During the Bush Administration's years, especially in its first term, the left was rightly critical of George W Bush's over-reliance on military force. Now WikiLeaks is setting out to punish Washington for pursuing its aims through peaceful means — and undermining those peaceful means in the future. Thanks Julian, but I'd take the late Richard Holbrooke over you any day.

4. The playing field WikiLeaks has established is not a level one. It is much easier to steal information from open, democratic societies than from closed, authoritarian ones. WikiLeaks has hinted about future Russian leaks, but so far the vast preponderance of material is American in origin. Therefore the world sees the frailties of US diplomacy in much sharper focus than that that of, say, China or Iran. Do US diplomats look good in every exchange on which they report? No. But WikiLeaks doesn't allow us to compare them fairly to their foreign counterparts.

5. Even though WikiLeaks has rigged the game against the Americans, they don't come out of it as badly as you might think (and as Mr Assange doubtless hoped). If you squint your eyes and look at the totality of the information released so far, it turns out that the international problems about which Washington complains (for example, the Iranian nuclear program) are real and dangerous; that other capitals broadly agree with this; and that the American diplomats who are trying to address these problems often get little assistance from the rest of the world, including from those who egg them on privately. In other words, despite its clear intentions, WikiLeaks undercuts the view that America is arrogant, unilateral and bellicose.

I can't deny that WikiLeaks is fascinating. For a foreign policy think tank, it's great for business. Though many of the documents tell us nothing new, some are genuinely interesting and enlightening. Yet none of this takes away from the essential recklessness of WikiLeaks' conduct.

Even a sick tree can bear fruit. But we shouldn't pretend that the tree is healthy.

Photo by Flickr user Night Owl City.

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I was sad to hear that Richard Holbrooke has died. Holbrooke was one of the century's great diplomats. He served in Vietnam and worked on the Paris Peace Talks; advised LBJ from the White House; represented the US in Germany and at the UN; negotiated the Dayton Peace Accords; and worked for President Obama on Afghanistan-Pakistan.

I was lucky enough to interview Holbrooke in Washington this year for a book I am writing on presidential envoys. It proved impossible to get to him through the various official gatekeepers, so eventually I just emailed him at his presumed State Department email address. He responded immediately and enthusiastically.

In person, he was forceful, self-centred, charming and persuasive. He did not use his elbows on me but I had no doubt they would be sharp.

I was struck at the time that, although the Af-Pak file is big enough for any mortal, this was not the job with which Holbrooke thought he would end his career. There was a notable incongruity between the office knick-knacks which reminded Holbrooke's visitors of the centrality of his diplomatic career – the photographs from the Balkans, the framed notes from former presidents – and the location of his suite, in an outer corridor of Foggy Bottom. Holbrooke was an important player in the Obama Administration on perhaps its most difficult problem – but he was not a dominant figure.

Richard Holbrooke was a complex, difficult character, but I admired him. The highlight of his career was Dayton, which ended the Bosnian war and saved countless lives. Only a figure like Holbrooke could have stood up to Slobodan Milosevic and talked him down.

But not even Holbrooke could have brokered Dayton without the ability to have confidential conversations with his interlocutors. At a time when WikiLeaks is undermining diplomacy, it has taken the death of a legendary diplomat to show us why diplomacy matters.

Photo by Flickr user US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan.

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 The news that the '9/11 truth' movement has infiltrated Australian politics is a bit depressing.

According to The Australian, the Greens candidate for the Victorian seat of Flinders, Bob Brown (no relation to his leader), opined as follows on 9/11 recently:

The 9/11 commission was not conclusive that al-Qa'ida was responsible…There are huge questions that need to be asked -- one building came down without being hit, architects say the building looked like they were brought down by controlled explosions. What happened to the bodies and plane at the Pentagon?

Mr Brown has since said that he was speaking purely as an individual, although it's not entirely clear whether he now accepts that AQ was in fact behind the events of 9/11.

Obviously the argument that the US government was behind the 9/11 attacks is an amalgam of ignorance, distortions and lies, yet some people have fastened on to it.

It's a bit like Franklin Roosevelt and Pearl Harbour. Many still believe that FDR had advance warning of the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941, even though the argument defies logic. Why would a sitting president – let alone someone who was obsessed with the US Navy, as Roosevelt was – allow a great portion of his nation's fleet to be destroyed at anchor? Why would he risk impeachment, if not a treason trial? And if he did know, why has evidence of this never emerged, despite decades of historical research?

Perhaps it not unnatural to want to believe that events with world-historical consequences also have world-historical causes. When this exists alongside an hostility towards authority, and an ignorance of government's frailties, and a hatred of a particular authority figure (whether it be Roosevelt or George W Bush), you end up with bizarre conspiracy theories. But I would hate to think that such theories would be vented in the House of Representatives.

Photo (of American 'truther' protesters) by Flickr user peace chicken, used under a Creative Commons license.

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In the AFR yesterday (the original version of my op-ed is here), I argued that Kevin Rudd's foreign policy was generally impressive, given the length of his tenure in the office of prime minister. Rudd committed his fair share of sins, but he also had a good log of achievements, in particular the role he played in the G20's upgrade and the establishment of a strong alliance relationship in a more competitive environment than has existed in years.

There were process problems, but these were also the flipside of his vast energy and ambition to do good things. When compared with the first-term foreign-policy performances of other prime ministers such as Bob Hawke and John Howard, Rudd can be proud of his record.

We know little about Julia Gillard's views on foreign policy, but she is likely to retain the government's overall foreign policy template. National interests remain constant; more importantly, Gillard perceives national interests through the same Labor lens as Rudd. In my AFR op-ed, I hazard a few guesses at the approach she'll take and where she'll differ from her predecessor.

What are her biggest foreign policy challenges? She must:

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  • Articulate her own foreign policy vision and renovate the foreign policy processes for achieving it.
  • Manage the Afghanistan commitment. As I argued on PM last night, safeguarding national security and looking after Australian forces in the field are among the highest demands on any Australian prime minister. Gillard will be wary about the declining public support for and increasing Australian casualties in the Afghanistan war; on the other hand, it is a war fought for honourable ends, beside our allies, with the authorisation of the UN and the support of the international community, in which the consequences of failure would be severe. I don't expect big changes in our posture any time soon. (Gillard's position is made easier by Tony Abbott's laudable support for the Australian commitment. Abbott might have given the government a lot of trouble over Afghanistan.)
  • Find common ground with Obama and develop her own alliance management approach. This can be tricky for Labor prime ministers, but Rudd pulled it off well.
  • Get around Asia. Gillard needs to introduce herself to the leaders of China, Japan and Indonesia (she already knows Manmohan Singh of India) and develop realistic relationships with them.

If the government is re-elected, the identity of Gillard's foreign minister will be very important in all this. We shouldn't read too much into the transitional arrangements announced recently, by which Stephen Smith inherits trade as well as foreign affairs. Smith's promotion clearly indicates that Gillard holds him in high regard; on the other hand, there is a strong case for giving the job to Rudd, given his background and credentials and his status as an ousted leader. If she wins, Gillard's decision will likely depend on the kind of foreign policy role she intends to play as prime minister, and on her relationship with Rudd.

Image courtesy of the Prime Minister's Office.

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Part one here; part two here.

Outside every official or semi-official building in Beijing, there is a security guard standing on a little pedestal. I understand the point of the pedestal, but I found it hard to be cowed by guards who were so young and fragile-looking, with waists like those of runway models. The rough, hawk-faced plain-clothed fellows in Tiananmen Square were another matter, however.

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Another less pleasant aspect of Beijing is the smog. The city deserves the moniker given to it by an acquaintance: 'Old Chokey'. Not all the pollution is the product of rapid industrialisation, either. I have never seen so many smokers. At one famous duck restaurant I found that every urinal had a little ashtray sitting neatly on top. You'd hate to miss the chance for an extra fag, would you?

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While I was in town, I called on Washington's man in Beijing, US Ambassador Jon Huntsman. The US representative is always a figure to be reckoned with, but Huntsman has unusual cachet given that he is a former governor of Utah and a plausible moderate candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. He's an impressive fellow who has had a lot to do with Australians, in particular the Packer family. His fluent Mandarin also gives him a more rice-roots view of the country to which he is accredited.

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Speaking of rice, I found it surprisingly hard to get any while I was in Beijing. In restaurants, it took repeated requests to obtain a small bowl of the delicious stuff. The general view seems to be that rice is peasant food: why would you eat rice when you can have pork or duck instead? I can see I will have to revisit my use of the phrase 'for all the rice in China'.

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The hutongs described in my previous post exist on a human scale; much of Beijing does not.

Like the Forbidden City, some of the new Olympic-era architecture (on which Sam has blogged) is monumental and deeply impressive. I was amazed by the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium, the Water Cube swimming arena and the CCTV headquarters.

Yet although those buildings are spectacular, they are also entirely unmoored from their surroundings and somewhat alien in appearance – in fact the National Centre for the Performing Arts (pictured) looks less like 'The Egg' (as it is known) and more like one of the huge spaceships from Independence Day, crash-landed into the middle of the Chinese capital.

That The Egg is only a stone's throw from Tiananmen Square tells you something else about these buildings – they are reflective of the political system that built them. I can't imagine these structures being erected by a democratic government that was more mindful of planning regulations and local feelings.

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The nexus between architecture and politics is perfectly expressed in the form of Zhongnanhai, the Chinese Communist Party's leadership compound.

Visitors to Washington, DC can get surprisingly close to the north portico of the White House, which faces directly on to Pennsylvania Avenue. Zhongnanhai, by contrast, presents a blank grey wall to the public, which is entirely excluded from the important discussions within. The very notion of a leadership compound is a difficult one for a Westerner to absorb – imagine if Barack Obama, John McCain and Sarah Palin all lived on top of each other in a gated community in Washington.

At one level, it speaks to the idea of collective leadership as expressed in the CCP; at another level, it merely camouflages the intense competition for advancement between individuals and factions, which is every bit as hard-fought and dangerous as it is in any capital. For the skinny on the CCP, I'm looking forward to reading Richard McGregor's new book, The Party. Richard has a keen eye for the telling detail, for example his anecdote about the ‘red machines’ found on the desks of senior Chinese office-holders and executives.

Photo by Flickr user badbrother, used under a Creative Commons license.

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