Lowy Institute

Part 1 of this series reviewed great speeches on Australia's place in the world, from Federation to Vietnam. In this post, I look at the period from Vietnam to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

1. Robert Hughes, 'The culture of complaint', New York, 14 January 1992

Bob Hughes was one of our great characters, an erudite commentator on art, history and politics. In 1992 he gave a series of public lectures at the New York Public Library (reproduced in his Culture of Complaint) in which he entered the American culture wars like a whirling dervish, railing against political correctness and euphemism and dispensing blows to both left and right. 

Hidden within this polemic was a thoughtful and generous account of multicultural Australia, which he presented as a counterpoint to the more ideological American version:

(Australian) multiculturalism asserts that people with different roots can co-exist, that they can learn to read the image-banks of others, that they can and should look across the frontiers of race, language, gender and age without prejudice or illusion, and learn to think against the background of a hybridised society. It proposes — modestly enough — that some of the most interesting things in history and culture happen at the interface between cultures. It wants to study border situations, not only because they are fascinating in themselves, but because understanding them may bring with it a little hope for the world.

2. Paul Keating, Eulogy for the Unknown Soldier, 11 November 1993

On Remembrance Day 1993, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the 1918 armistice, an unknown Australian soldier, representing all Australians who have been killed in war, was interred in the Hall of Memory of the Australian War Memorial. Prime Minister Keating's eulogy that day is perhaps the finest speech in Australian history. It was composed of good, plain words, elegantly arranged. 

The speech began:

We do not know this Australian's name and we never will. We do not know his rank or his battalion. We do not know where he was born, or precisely how and when he died. We do not know where in Australia he had made his home or when he left it for the battlefields of Europe. We do not know his age or his circumstances — whether he was from the city or the bush; what occupation he left to become a soldier; what religion, if he had a religion; if he was married or single. We do not know who loved him or whom he loved. If he had children we do not know who they are. His family is lost to us as he was lost to them. We will never know who this Australian was.

Yet he has always been among those we have honoured. We know that he was one of the forty-five thousand Australians who died on the Western Front. One of the 416,000 Australians who volunteered for service in the First World War. One of the 324,000 Australians who served overseas in that war, and one of the sixty thousand Australians who died on foreign soil. One of the hundred thousand Australians who have died in wars this century.

He is all of them. And he is one of us.

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3. Nick Warner, 'We are here as friends', Honiara, Solomon Islands, 24 July 2014

In the early 2000s Solomon Islands was nearly overwhelmed by ethnic violence, corruption, criminality and thuggery. By 2003, the Solomon Islands state was close to failing. In July, the Australian Government decided to accede to a request from Honiara and lead a regional intervention in the country — the Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

On 24 July the first RAMSI personnel, comprising military, police and civilians including Special Coordinator Nick Warner, were deployed in Honiara as part of Operation Helpem Fren (pidgin for 'helping friends'). Hundreds of Solomon Islands men, women and children pressed against the cyclone fence around the perimeter of Henderson airport to get a look at the force. Most appeared happy and excited. Standing on the tarmac, wearing a red lei around his neck, Warner delivered a message to the people of Solomon Islands.

People everywhere have a right to live their lives peacefully, to go about their daily business without threats or violence or intimidation, to have their children educated in schools, to have illnesses attended to in hospitals and clinics, to have a government that is permitted to govern for the benefit of all people, free from intimidation or coercion by armed thugs.

Solomon Islands used to be such a place.

But for too long this country has suffered at the hands of a small number of militants and criminals who have terrorised Solomon Islands society, brought the country to its knees, and done a disservice to the reputation of Solomon Islanders as a good and generous people.

The men and women from around the Pacific who arrived on your shores today as part of the regional assistance mission come at the invitation of the Solomon Islands government, and as guests of the Solomon Islands people.

We are calling our involvement here Operation Helpem Fren, because that is what we are here to do. We are here as friends, to work in partnership with you, to restore promise to your country, to restore hopes for a better life to you and your children.

4. Owen Harries, 'Saying no can get to be hard', 29 November 2006

One of Australia's most eminent foreign-policy thinkers, Owen Harries is a political conservative but a foreign-policy realist. His opposition to the Iraq war put him at odds with the Howard Government. A few years after the invasion of Iraq, Harries delivered a thoughtful speech to the Lowy Institute on the lessons of the conflict for the US and Australia. He concluded:

I believe that the days when Australian foreign policy was a relatively simple affair are coming to an end. Dealing with an unsettled superpower ally, while simultaneously adjusting to the rising importance of China as a regional power and a trading partner, is going to require skills that Australia has not had much cause to practise until now...

Every alliance requires a degree of trust. It also requires discrimination and balance — and a touch of scepticism. What Australia must learn from the Iraq experience is that it should not commit itself to marching in lock-step with anyone — let alone a superpower which is simultaneously committed to an incredibly ambitious programme of global change, deeply divided domestically, and has the most inept president since Warren G. Harding in its White House.

It must learn to be as good an ally as it can be while maintaining its freedom of choice.

5. Julie Bishop, 'An utterly deplorable act', New York, 22 July 2014

As I have written before, Canberra conducted itself admirably in the days after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, an act that caused the greatest single loss of Australian life overseas since the 2002 Bali bombings. Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke plainly and clearly and helped to stiffen the Western response to this outrage. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was energetic in her diplomatic efforts. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was scrupulous in his support for the Government. Australian officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to the Australian Federal Police were highly professional. All in all, there was a sobriety to the response that was a relief after the circus antics of Clive Palmer and Senator Jacqui Lambie. MH17 had had a jolting effect on the Australian body politic.

The Foreign Minister's strong statement following the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2166 makes this list both because of the significance of the moment — this was, after all, a resolution drafted and negotiated successfully by Australia — and because of the righteous anger with which she delivered it.

Mr President, the message from this Council to those who were responsible for this atrocity is definitive — you will be held to account for your actions.

Australia will continue to do everything we can to ensure this barbaric act is thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice.

We have an overriding objective — to ensure dignity, respect and justice for those killed on MH17. We will not rest until this is done. We will not rest until we bring them home.


As readers of The Interpreter may have heard, I've just launched a revised second edition of Men and Women of Australia! Our Greatest Modern Speeches.

Most of the speeches in my book are about Australian history, culture and politics, not Australian foreign policy.

As I've argued before, foreign policy is Australia's area of speechmaking underperformance. Too often, Australian foreign policy speeches are workmanlike rather than profound. They have content but not much flair. However, the pickings are much richer if we broaden our perspective from foreign policy narrowly-defined to Australia's place in the world more broadly.

In a two-part post, I'll nominate ten great speeches about Australia's place in the world. These first five cover the period from Federation to Vietnam (transcripts for selections 1 and 2 are not online, but all of the speeches selected here are featured in the book):

1. Vida Goldstein, 'You will soon be citizens of no mean country', London, UK, 17 June 1911

Australia was in the front rank of nations when it awarded (most) women the right both to vote and to stand for the Commonwealth Parliament in 1902. In subsequent years, Australian suffragists tried to coax their British cousins down the same path: our parliament passed resolutions recommending the policy, and our activists carried the word to the UK in person. 

The most prominent of these women was Vida Goldstein, who organised an international contingent to march with 40,000 others in a 1911 suffrage procession through London. Goldstein gave a rousing speech at Royal Albert Hall at the conclusion of the march, urging the Brits to follow our lead in awarding women the right to vote. 'I know that you will soon be citizens of no mean country', she concluded.

2. Billy Hughes, 'It is the duty of every citizen to defend his country', 18 September 1916

Billy Hughes was prime minister for most of the First World War, earning the affection of Australia's soldiers and the sobriquet 'The Little Digger'. In 1916 Hughes became concerned by the depletion of Australia's military strength through the appalling casualties of the Western Front, and was converted to the cause of conscripting Australians for service overseas.

His speech to a monster public meeting in Sydney in September 1916 created immense (though ultimately inadequate) momentum for the conscription cause:

Nearly three hundred thousand men have enlisted. Why should some take on their shoulders the burden that belongs to all? If life be such a sacred thing that no government or no individual has a right to lay hands upon it, why should these three hundred thousand be chosen to die, that we may live, unmolested, allowing the roll and thunder of battle to pass over us undisturbed? This war must be brought home to every man and woman in this great Commonwealth of Australia. If voluntaryism fails, the war must not fail. The interests at issue are too great. Australia must do her part. It may be that voluntaryism will save us; but if it does not, then we must still be saved.

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3. John Curtin, The Battle of the Coral Sea speech, 8 May 1942 

Towards the end of a slow sitting day on 8 May 1942, Prime Minister John Curtin rose and announced to the House of Representatives that battle had been joined in the Coral Sea, to Australia's north-east, between Allied forces and a Japanese naval task force seeking to capture Port Moresby, the capital of the Australian territory of Papua. The address was short in length and spare in language, which added to the drama of the moment.

Old hands regarded this as Curtin's finest speech, especially its closing moments:

I ask the people of Australia, having regard to the grave consequences implicit in this engagement, to make a sober and realistic estimate of their duty to the nation. As I speak, those who are participating in the engagement are conforming to the sternest discipline and are subjecting themselves with all that they have – it may be for many of them the last full measure of their devotion – to accomplish the increased safety and security of this territory. In the face of such an example I feel that it is not asking too much of every citizen who today is being defended by these gallant men in that engagement, to regard himself as engaged in the second line of service to Australia. The front line needs the maximum support of every man and woman in the Commonwealth. With all the responsibility which I feel, which the government feels, and which, I am sure, the parliament as a whole shares, I put it to any man whom my words may reach, however they may reach him, that he owes it to those men, and to the future of the country, not to be stinting in what he will do now for Australia. Men are fighting for Australia today; those who are not fighting have no excuse for not working.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first significant setback suffered by Japan and many now regard it as a turning point in the battle for Australia. It was also a turning point in our relations with the US, and underscored the prescience of Curtin's statement in the Melbourne Herald of 27 December 1941 that 'Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom'.

4. Robert Menzies, 'A spirit, a proud memory, a confident prayer', 26 June 1950

Prime Minister Robert Menzies told a British diplomat that the purpose of this speech to the Adelaide chapter of the Australian Institute of International Affairs was to 'restore the Commonwealth relationship to its proper place in the forefront' of Australian foreign-policy thinking. Menzies was sceptical of the UN, in which former external affairs minister HV Evatt had put such faith, preferring an interests-based approach and especially close relations with Britain and the US, Australia's 'great and powerful friends'.

The British Commonwealth is more than a group of friendly powers. It is more than a series of concerted economic interests. It is and must be a living thing – not a corpse under the knives of the constitutional dissectors. It would be the tragedy of our history if what began as a splendid adventure and grew into a proud brotherhood should end up as a lawyer's exercise. When the Commonwealth ceases to be an inner feeling as well as an external association, virtue will have gone out of it.

5. Arthur Calwell, 'I offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated', 4 May 1965

In response to Prime Minister Menzies' 1965 announcement that Australia would send an infantry battalion to Vietnam, Opposition Leader Arthur Calwell laid out Labor's opposition to Australia's participation in the war in a finely argued parliamentary statement. The party politics of the Vietnam War were, in fact, strikingly similar to the party politics of the Iraq war nearly forty years later. In both cases a Coalition government sought to shrink the US-Australia alliance to the dimensions of a single conflict, while a Labor opposition argued that the war was inimical to the interests of both countries. Calwell's remarks laid out Labor's case in plain English, argument upon argument. They were anti-war without being anti-American, and were substantially vindicated by history.

Here is Calwell's rousing conclusion:

May I, through you, Mr Speaker, address this message to the members of my own party – my colleagues here in this parliament, and that vast band of Labor men and women outside: the course we have agreed to take today is fraught with difficulty. I cannot promise you that easy popularity can be bought in times like these; nor are we looking for it. We are doing our duty as we see it. When the drums beat and the trumpets sound, the voice of reason and right can be heard in the land only with difficulty. But if we are to have the courage of our convictions, then we must do our best to make that voice heard. I offer you the probability that you will be traduced, that your motives will be misrepresented, that your patriotism will be impugned, that your courage will be called into question. But I also offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated; that generations to come will record with gratitude that when a reckless government wilfully endangered the security of this nation, the voice of the Australian Labor Party was heard, strong and clear, on the side of sanity and in the cause of humanity, and in the interests of Australia's security.


Lowy Institute Paper

Debating Beyond the Boom

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The Lowy Institute is, first and foremost, a research institution. We publish research that is accessible to policy-makers and non-specialist readers. Often this will mean writing succinct, pithy analyses for readers who are short of time. But the biggest issues require deeper exploration: this is where the Lowy Institute Papers come in.

Since our establishment eleven years ago, the Institute has published over thirty of these monographs. Past Lowy Institute Papers have addressed topics such as the rise of India as a economic power, the growing role of diasporas in the world, the relationship between climate change and security, and Islamism in Southeast Asia.

Today we embark on an exciting new phase of the Lowy Institute Paper series with the launch of our newest Paper, Beyond the Boom, by John Edwards. Dr Edwards takes a provocative look at the mining boom and asks whether it really is over – and how much it has actually contributed to Australia's prosperity.

The Lowy Institute Papers will henceforth be published in conjunction with Penguin Australia, to ensure the widest possible readership. Each Paper will make a lively and engaging argument about the biggest international issues facing Australia. They are handsome little volumes, featuring the Institute's livery and branding, and they sit easily in the hand. Lowy Institute Papers will be available in for purchase in good bookstores and online and as e-books.

In a new feature, each Paper will be accompanied by a debate on The Interpreter so that we can continue the conversation with our readers. John Edwards will kick off the debate today with a short summary of his key arguments. Over coming days some of Australia's best economic minds will respond.


This item was originally published on The Drum

Neville Wran, premier of New South Wales for a decade, brought professionalism, class and wit to Australian politics. Clothed in a good suit and armed with a sharp wit, he dominated his government, the Labor Party and the state.

I first encountered Neville Wran as a little tacker. I was at the Sydney Fish Markets with my parents when the premier walked by, said hello and patted my head. Even to a child, it was obvious that he was a giant.

The obits today describe Wran's achievements in office: a strong economy, the saving of the rainforests, great public works, electoral reform, swingeing law reform and so on — and, of course, the four consecutive election victories that enabled all of this. But they don't fully capture the style of the man.

In a meeting of Cabinet or a sitting of Parliament, Wran was magnificent. There was a famous instance when a Country Party MP insisted on heckling Neville at the dispatch box. Increasingly infuriated, Neville fixed a cold eye on him and warned: 'If the honourable member does not cease to interject immediately, I shall be forced to acquaint the House with a particularly villainous act he has perpetrated in the past month.'

The opposition MP immediately became pale and silent. Afterwards one of Neville's colleagues approached him and asked the premier what he had on the recalcitrant MP. 'Nothing,' replied Neville. 'But you can be sure that a bastard like that will have done something dreadful in the past month!'

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This morning I spoke with Graham Freudenberg, Neville's speechwriter and the dean of Australian speechwriters. He told me that Wran was 'the best politician of my time in his ability to see the opportunities and pitfalls and to understand what the public would wear.'

Neville was immensely loyal to his friends, often to his cost. But Graham reminded me that he also 'enjoyed his hates'. One of these was the arch-conservative Country Party leader, Leon Punch. One day in parliament, when Punch was droning on, Wran turned to his deputy Jack Ferguson and said: 'If I go before you, and this bastard stands up in the valedictories, move the gag.'

I got to know Neville in my second year at Sydney University, when I joined the national committee of the Australian Republican Movement. The committee was chaired initially by Tom Keneally and later by Malcolm Turnbull. Apart from the UNSW student representative Lorand Bartels and me, the committee was comprised of the great and the good: Geraldine Doogue, Donald Horne, Harry Seidler, Faith Bandler, Colin Lanceley, Franca Arena and others. Neville dominated its meetings with intelligence and humour. He would usually arrive late, cut through the café talk, employ a few choice colloquialisms and bring us all to the point. He was pure crystal.

Inevitably he would make a little joke under his breath, in his hoarse voice, to the junior members of the committee. There was always a wink and a grin. As Malcolm Turnbull noted yesterday, Neville was young at heart — wickedly funny and entirely lacking in pomposity and self-importance. His loyal staffers called him 'Mr Wran' but he always introduced himself as 'Neville'.

I never saw Neville show bitterness or regret that he didn't make it to Canberra. But what a show he would have put on in the national capital! His interests were always larger than state politics. He was convinced of the merits of Paul Keating's push into Asia, and served as Australia's representative on the Eminent Persons Group of APEC. He was interested in foreign policy, and he was a regular presence in the audience at the Lowy Institute until a couple of years ago.

And, of course, Wran believed that Australia's head of state should be one of us. Famously, he danced with Diana. I'm sure he would have been pleased to dance with Kate, too. But he held to the simple proposition that the highest office under the Australian constitution should be held by an Australian — someone who had chosen to make their life with us and among us. A term at Timbertop simply did not cut it.

One of Wran's greatest strengths, Freudenberg observed to me today, was his ability to communicate his enthusiasm to others. When he was working on the plans for Darling Harbour, he would say to public servant Gerry Gleeson: 'There has to be something happening there all the time. Every time someone visits, we need to excite them!'

And in many ways this was Neville's whole approach to life. He was a giant figure — an enlarger not a straightener, according to Manning Clark's dichotomy — and a great Sydney character.

Vale the Hon NK Wran, AC, QC.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.