Lowy Institute
9 of 22 This post is part of a debate on MH17

The UN Security Council observes a minute's silence for the MH17 victims. (UN photo.)

The clocks at the UN were approaching midnight on Sunday night when the Security Council concluded an emergency session on the Gaza conflict, and then immediately reconvened for consultations on an Australian draft resolution dealing with the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner MH17. Unscheduled late-night meetings, especially on the weekend, are uncommon at the UN. Two back-to-back meetings at such a late hour involving such major crises may well be unprecedented. But with the debris-strewn crash site becoming more contaminated with every passing hour, there was no time to lose. 

Negotiations had been conducted earlier in the day on a resolution calling for an independent international investigation and demanding that armed groups in control of the crash site immediately provide safe, secure, full and unrestricted access. But at the eleventh hour – in the most literal sense of all – the Russians threw a sickle in the works. At the midnight meeting, the Russians came with their own resolution. Vitaly Churkin, a protégé of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, said he had problems with 'ambiguities' in Australia’s draft.

British ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, angry over what he saw as blatant Russian obstructionism, told reporters: 'it looks like typical Russian delaying  tactics. It's extraordinary that they've introduced some new amendments which they didn't introduce earlier in the day.' 

Just hours earlier, the language of the draft had been softened to make it more palatable to Moscow. It referred now to the 'downing' of the Boeing 777 rather than its 'shooting down'. But the Russians wanted the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN agency, to take the lead, rather than Ukrainian crash investigators acting with the help of the ICAO. 

After the meeting, which ended at one o'clock on Monday morning, Churkin indicated that Russia’s reservations had been addressed, but still would not say for sure whether his hand would be raised in favour of the resolution. Moscow knew that a veto would be met by an international outcry, and be received, as Tony Abbott put it, 'very very badly'. So minutes before the Security Council gathered for its mid-afternoon meeting on Monday, Churkin indicated Russia's support, which meant the resolution passed unanimously.

Unquestionably, this is a significant achievement for Australian diplomacy.

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Having announced on Friday that it was determined to get a resolution, it managed to secure passage in the space of 72 hours. That may seem slow for those unfamiliar with the tortured geopolitics of the Security Council, but, in UN terms, it is close to warp speed. Some of the Australian diplomats involved in the negotiations were working on an hour's sleep. This was a round-the-clock endeavour.

Australia enjoys a lot of goodwill on the Security Council, not least for its efforts to secure resolutions boosting humanitarian aid to Syria. What made its achievement doubly significant was that it came precisely a week after unanimous passage of its resolution, co-sponsored by Jordan and Luxembourg,  opening the way for more cross-border aid to Syria.

The presence in the chamber of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, along with her Dutch and Luxembourg counterparts, was meaningful and well-received. It provided a clear demonstration of Canberra's determination. It gave Australia's words extra emotional power. Though the nitty gritty of the negotiation was conducted by Australia's permanent representative Gary Quinlan, Julie Bishop was heavily involved behind the scenes.

Raising a hand in support of a UN resolution is a very different thing from lifting a finger where it matters, and the test of this resolution will be in its implementation. Russia claims it has already offered assistance, but America's ambassador Samantha Power said there should never have been any need for a resolution if Moscow had used its influence over the separatists to allow for unfettered access. For the Kremlin not to have condemned the “armed thugs” for tampering with evidence and blocking investigators sent a powerful message, she claimed: 'We have your backs.'

Since the shooting down of MH17 the chamber of the Security Council has felt more like a courtroom. Even after this resolution, Vladimir Putin is still very much in the dock.

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When its two-year term on the UN Security Council comes to a close at the end of December, Australia will be remembered above all else for it efforts at securing greater humanitarian aid for Syria's beleaguered people. At a time when Canberra's asylum seeker policies have drawn criticism from the UN and given the impression internationally of hard-heartedness, its team in New York has carved out a reputation as energetic, if often thwarted, humanitarians. It is work that has not attracted a huge amount of media attention back home.

When Australia took up the gavel at the Security Council last September, it pressed hard for what's called a presidential statement on humanitarian aid to Syria, and was instrumental in securing one the following month.

The Australian thinking back then was that the presidential statement would form the basis for an eventual resolution, a far more significant text. That strategy came to fruition in February when the Security Council, in a rare moment of unanimity on Syria, passed a long-awaited and much-needed resolution (2139). All fifteen members demanded unhindered humanitarian access for UN agencies and its partners across conflict lines and across borders, and also promised 'further steps' in the event of non-compliance, an intentionally vague phrase.

Australia, along with co-sponsors Jordan and Luxembourg, is now pushing for a stronger resolution. The draft now being negotiated identifies four specific crossing points where aid can be delivered most effectively — two in Turkey, one in Jordan and one in Iraq — and states explicitly that humanitarian convoys can drive over the border without the permission of the Assad regime. It also invokes Chapter VII of the UN Charter, with its threat of sanctions and military force.

It therefore seeks to remedy the three main weaknesses of resolution 2139. First, the absence of any enforcement mechanism. Second, its failure to state unambiguously that aid convoys could rumble into Syria without authorisation from Damascus (UN lawyers judged that 2139 lacked that authority, a narrow interpretation challenged by many international legal experts). And third, the fact that 90% of UN aid is distributed in government-held areas, an iniquitous imbalance.

The problem now, as it has been for the past three years, is not just the Syrian Government's intransigence but Russian obstructionism.

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It is hard to see Moscow accepting any resolution that invokes Chapter VII because it has continually shielded the Assad regime from punitive measures. An additional Russian fear is that such a resolution could hand the West a trigger for military intervention (not that the Western powers have any appetite to put boots on the ground or even warplanes in the skies to enforce a no-fly zone which could curb the use of barrel bombs). Russia also backs Syria's stance on sovereignty; the right to decide who and what crosses its borders. At present, all UN-delivered aid has to pass through the Syrian capital.

On this point, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been unusually outspoken of late. 'It is an affirmation of the sovereign responsibility of the government to ensure that its citizens do not suffer in such a tragic and unnecessary way,' he wrote in his latest monthly report on compliance with Resolution 2139, a document which has made for ever more miserable reading.

Russia, by recently proposing the opening up of humanitarian corridors into eastern Ukraine and by invading Crimea, has also undercut its position on sovereignty – not that Moscow sees it that way.

On the face of it, the chances of the new resolution surviving a Russian veto seem remote. But Australia's ambassador, Gary Quinlan, one of the most active Security Council diplomats on the humanitarian issue, remains guardedly optimistic. UN watchers were equally doubtful in February before the passage of Resolution 2139, he points out, 'and they were wrong.'

According to the French, the fact that Russia and China vetoed a resolution last month calling on all parties guilty of war crimes in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague boosts the chances of success. It won't look good for Russia to veto two Syria resolutions in such quick succession. But again, Moscow seems to have little regard for diplomatic optics.

A senior Western diplomatic source, speaking on background, was less optimistic, putting the chances of passage at no more than 30%. Certainly, it is hard to see a Chapter VII resolution emerging from the Security Council, although inserting such a provision into the draft may be primarily for negotiating purposes. But that raises the question of whether a weakened resolution without the threat of punitive measures would be worthwhile. Like 2139, it would be hard to enforce and easy for the Assad regime to ignore. If its maximal draft resolution gets watered down too much, Australian diplomats might not even put it to a vote. The only reason to do so would be to shame veto-wielding Russia.

Resolution or no resolution, a rethink about the delivery of aid is already underway. It is focussed on NGOs rather than UN agencies like UNICEF, the World Food Programme and UNHCR. 'We are open to the idea of providing aid through any means that will get to the people who need it,' said US Secretary of State John Kerry when he spoke, with mounting frustration, at a conference on Syria in London last month. Britain too has started re-orientating its aid effort.

Even senior UN officials are privately encouraging donor countries to bypass the UN and channel their aid through NGOs, which have had more success reaching opposition-held areas and do not seek permission from Damascus before bringing food and medical supplies over the border. Last week, twelve leading NGOs sent a joint letter to The Guardian bemoaning the failure of Resolution 2139 and highlighting the deteriorating situation on the ground. 'The world has stood aghast as Syrians clamour for an end to their suffering,' the letter said. 'History will be generous to those that answer their call and unforgiving to those who turn away.'

Yet these kind of statements, along with the jolting images of suffering from Syria that accompany them, have had little impact on the tortuous geo-politics of the UN Security Council.

Photo by Flickr user Freedom House.

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May should have been a milestone month for Australian international broadcasting, and arguably the most celebratory in the 13-year history of the Australia Network. ABC executives were due to sign a prized deal with the Shanghai Media Group, giving the ABC the most extensive access to Chinese audiences of any Western broadcaster, with a more expansive reach even than the BBC or CNN. 'Most importantly, the agreement will provide opportunities for promotion of Australian business, tourism, entertainment, culture and education', said Lynley Marshall, the chief executive of ABC International.

Instead, the DFAT-funded network is to be shut down. On the eve of its greatest triumph, the Australia Network has been told it can no longer compete.

In an ever more cutthroat field of international broadcasters that includes the BBC, CCTV, RT, Deutsche Welle, France 24, Iran's Press TV and al-Jazeera, the Australia Network had been making major strides. The Shanghai Media Group deal meant Australia was about to join the UK and US as the only countries with broadcasting rights in China.

Yet it will cease to broadcast in the 46 nations where presently it is available. Aussie expats will find it harder to watch their beloved footy teams. More importantly for Australia, regional viewers from French Polynesia to Pakistan will no longer be able to peer through what the former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer called a 'window on Australia' to see 'Australian perspectives of the world'.

ABC Managing Director Mark Scott has been arguing for years that the Australia Network represents the country's most cost-effective form of soft diplomacy, and that the $223 million ten-year contract negotiated with the Labor government after a messy and politically-charged tendering process was money well spent. The network was particularly useful during the Indian students crisis, he claimed, to counter the sensationalist reporting of Indian cable news channels. Mr Scott could also cite an impressive statistic from a 2009 survey which found that 55% of adults in urban areas in the Pacific watched the Australia Network during the previous week. 'What other means of public diplomacy has that reach?' he asked.

The Australia Network, in conjunction with Radio Australia, was also part of a broader public diplomacy mission. 'These Australian services are a sign to our regional neighbours in Asia and the Pacific of our determination to engage with them', he argued in 2010.' But they are also a sign of something larger, of how Australia lives up to the promise of freedom of expression, of an open, democratic way of life'. That was underscored by the editorial independence of the ABC.

Even though Radio Australia was founded in 1939, while Robert Menzies was prime minister, and ABC Asia Pacific, the forerunner of the Australia Network, was created during the Howard years, the Abbott Government has decided to pull the plug.

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Julie Bishop had already indicated she thought it was failing as a tool of public diplomacy. 'I am concerned by the level of negative feedback I receive from overseas', she said. Tony Abbott has complained that the ABC is unpatriotic, especially after it aired, in partnership with The Guardian, revelations from Edward Snowden about Australian spying in Indonesia. 'I think it dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone's side but its own', he told the talk show host Ray Hadley. There is also the suspicion that in axing the Australia Network the Prime Minister is delivering the 'quo' to Rupert Murdoch's pre-election tabloid 'quid'. Sky News had been trying for years to get the lucrative DFAT contract.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who only this month appeared on the influential Hardtalk program on BBC World News, believes that in this digital age the ABC can simply stream its 24-hour news channel.

Following the change of government, ABC executives suspected this was coming, though they hoped the China deal would save the network from the axe. But the writing was daubed indelibly on the wall in a lecture delivered last October by Peter Varghese, the secretary of DFAT. Speaking on the subject of 'Building Australia's Soft Power', he did not even mention the Australia Network or Radio Australia. What made this omission all the more pointed was that he was delivering the Bruce Allen Memorial Lecture, which honours the life of an ABC journalist with a passion for international broadcasting. Three years earlier, Mark Scott had himself given the memorial lecture and entitled it 'A Global ABC: Soft Diplomacy and the world of international broadcasting'.

Varghese did not deliver a rebuttal. Rather, he disregarded Mark Scott's arguments completely.

Soft power is notoriously hard to quantify. However, international broadcasting is widely viewed as particularly cost-effective, which explains why France, Germany, China, and Japan have expanded their Pacific services in recent years. The BBC, my own employer, may have lost 15 language services since 2006 and seen the withdrawal of Foreign Office funding for the World Service, but it is still planning to extend its global reach — to a worldwide audience of 500 million by 2022, its centenary year. In Britain's case, the withdrawal of government funding did not mean the end of the BBC's global operations. Far from it.

Speakers at a recent conference held at Washington's Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think-tank, called for America to boost its international broadcasts, especially in Ukraine, to counter the influence of Russian broadcasters. When Monocle magazine compiled its latest soft power index, it praised France for investing in France 24 and Radio France International.

Australia has generally performed well in the Monocle annual soft power index. Currently it is ranked 7th (although its asylum seeker policies and opposition to same-sex marriage evidently prevented it rising further up the ladder). When next year's index is compiled, the demise of the Australia Network will surely cost it dear.

For Australian journalism, this is obviously a major setback. ABC's Asia Pacific News Centre is the only newsroom in Australia dedicated to delivering news to and from the region. The Australia Network has three dedicated staff in Beijing (a correspondent, cameraman and producer), two in Jakarta, and one in India. Insiders at the ABC say it will have a spill-over effect on the domestic coverage of Asia, because so many bureaux relied on Australia Network funding.

The diplomatic cost is harder to calculate. At a time when Australia would have been expected to project its influence in the Asia Pacific, it has given the appearance of shying away. It has given up a vital tool in explaining itself to its neighbours. And when some are calling for a larger Australia, it runs the risk of appearing provincial and small.

 Image by Flickr user Eddy Milfort

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Wherever Kevin Rudd goes, leadership speculation seems to follow. During his time in Australia, it centred on the stewardship of the Australian Labor Party. Now that he is based in America, it involves an even more disparate, unruly and opaque body, the UN.

According to a front-page report in The Saturday Paper, Rudd is positioning himself to succeed Ban Ki-moon as Secretary General of the UN, one of world diplomacy's most consequential postings. The South Korean, a career diplomat, ends his second term in 2017. Fueling the speculation, Bob Carr has chimed in by saying that Rudd would be ideal for the job.

A former diplomat, foreign affairs minister and prime minister, his curriculum vitae could almost have been written with the post in mind. His fluency in Mandarin would surely be a plus. Rudd has also mastered acronym-speak, the lingua franca of the UN. Already he has demonstrated his commitment to the UN by pushing for Australia's membership of the Security Council and serving on the Secretary General's high-level panel on global sustainability. Additionally, he served as a friend of the chair at the UN's climate change conference in Copenhagen back in 2009, a watershed event in his first prime ministership, if not in the fight against global warming.

Now teaching at Harvard, Rudd is a short shuttle flight from New York, and is geographically well-placed to launch a charm offensive. As with his return to The Lodge in 2013, the story, as recounted in Australia at least, has the ring of inevitability. After all, widespread is the feeling that Rudd's career has not yet reached its rightful fruition.

The problem with this narrative is that it overlooks some nettlesome details. In choosing its next head, the UN will adhere to a form of geopolitical correctness, whereby it gives each continent a turn. Having been led over the past three decades by a South Korean, a Ghanaian, an Egyptian, a Peruvian and an Austrian, the time has come for an Eastern European to take charge.

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That is why so much speculation within the UN community in Turtle Bay focuses not on Kevin Rudd, but figures like Danilo Türk, the former president of Slovenia and international law professor, who served between 2000 and 2005 as UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, one of the organisation's key jobs. Another name is the frame is Ján Kubiš, a Slovak diplomat who served as Secretary General of the OSCE and who now heads up the UN mission in Afghanistan. Rudd, as you will have noticed, is not the only potential candidate with an exemplary CV.

Even if it were Asia's turn, Rudd would face problems. The first is Australia's lock-step alliance with America, and his personal closeness to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The glowing words from former Obama Administration officials like Kurt Campbell, who once described Rudd essentially as the American president's best friend on the international stage, would count against him. China and Russia, because of Rudd's alignment with Washington, would likely have strong misgivings about his candidacy, and block it with their vetoes. At the UN, the Permanent Five are even more powerful than the ALP's faceless men. Any of the P5 members can block a candidate in their enclave-like discussions, conducted largely behind closed doors, which end up recommending a candidate for the UN General Assembly to rubber stamp.

There is another reason why Rudd would struggle, if indeed he wants the job. With 'Kevin 747' airborne again, he would likely be a highly energetic and highly visible Secretary General. It is easy imagine him criss-crossing the globe trying to personally intervene in every flaring crisis. Though Ban Ki-moon racks up tens of thousands of air miles, he does so in a relatively unobtrusive way. Moreover, he's highly cautious (excessively so, some would argue) and seldom acts in a way that perturbs the P5 members of the deeply divided Security Council. Would Kevin Rudd show such restraint? Would he settle for inconspicuousness? Would he be bound by the will of the UNSC?

A weakness of his candidacy comes from the strength of his candidacy. He would attempt to do the job too well.

Such questions are, in any case, moot. A Cold War dynamic has returned to the UN Security Council since the annexation of Crimea. Rudd will be viewed by Moscow as being on the wrong side of the modern-day iron curtain.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo.

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'Time has killed British Australia but has not yet put much in its place.' So wrote an ambitious young journalist in the commemorative edition of The Bulletin published in 1988, marking the Bicentenary of the First Fleet's arrival in Sydney Cove. This week Tony Abbott, who has since graduated from the press pool to the prime ministership, seemed intent on single-handedly reviving its corpse.

Of course, Australia has always been sluggish at enacting what Donald Horne described as 'the final casting off' from its former colonial master. The word 'British' appeared on Australian passports until the Whitlam era. 'God Save the Queen' survived as Australia's national anthem well into the 1980s, long after the public had indicated a preference for Advance Australia Fair. It took until 1993 to remove references to the Queen from the oath of Australian citizenship. Elizabeth II, barring some unforeseen political upending, will end her reign as the Queen of Australia. Her face will continue to adorn the $5 note for the foreseeable future, just as her blurry profile will remain on the dollar coin.

However, the return of these knightly trappings marks something new. The long and anguished process of detaching Australia from Britain – or 'consciously uncoupling', to deploy the phrase of the moment — has seemingly been put into reverse.

Tony Abbott has actively sought to strengthen the sentimental and constitutional bond. Thus, at a time when the country is overhauling its antique founding document so that it finally recognises indigenous Australians, the prime minister is figuratively wielding the yellow fluorescent marker pen to highlight the constitution's opening line: 'Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and under the Constitution hereby established.'

His intention is to celebrate Australians, of course, but he has done so by reviving a colonial relic, and bestowing what feels still like a distinctively British honour.

In some ways, the surprise move is reminiscent of Robert Menzies' audacious attempt in the 1960s to rename the Australian pound the Australian royal, a gambit met with scepticism and mockery even then. The difference this time is that, for all the jokes and guffaws, the writ of the prime minister will hold sway.

The question germane to readers of The Interpreter is 'Does this matter in the international sphere? Is it a gesture of diplomatic significance?' 

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Given how few gongs will be bestowed – only four per year – an argument could be mounted that this is trivial. Nobody outside of Australia will probably even notice.

But notice they have already. Even as attention focused near myopically on the search for the missing MH370, the international media has been unable to resist the temptation to lunge at such low-hanging fruit. Globally, it has made Australia in the Asian Century look more like Australia in the British Century. It reinforces the sense that the one-time executive director of the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy views his country through sepia-tinted spectacles, and prefers the world as it was rather than as is.

In terms of positioning Australia, it also adds flesh to the bones of a speech he delivered in December 2012 at his Oxford alma mater, Queen's College (inevitably), an oration which became known as the Anglosphere speech.

'China, Japan, India and Indonesia are countries that are profoundly important to Australia,' the then opposition leader noted. 'Size, proximity and economic and military strength matter. Of course they do; but so do the bonds of history, of shared values, and of millions of familiar attachments.'

Abbott also insinuated, more controversially, that Anglo-culture was pre-eminent: 'Western civilisation (especially in its English-speaking versions) provides our comparative advantage among the cultures of the world'. His knight move is a further sign that he believes Australia should remain resolutely Western rather than becoming more Asian.

To prosper in the Asian century, as it has done already, Australia need not radically alter its national identity or shed its Anglo-centric heritage. It is more a case of being receptive to Asian influences, and signaling a greater willingness to engage, not just economically but mentally. That is the problem with the restoration of knights and dames. It could be interpreted as a statement of regional separatism; a sign that Australia's new prime minister is still wedded to the land of his birth and post-graduate education rather than the region he inhabits now.

He sent the same signal when Prince Harry traveled to Australia for last year's international fleet review. Delivering his own variation on Menzies's famous 'I did but see her passing by' encomium, he enthused: 'I regret to say not everyone in Australia is a monarchist, but today everyone feels like a monarchist.'

Tony Abbott entered office claiming that his approach would be more Jakarta than Geneva. This heraldic scheme may send a contradictory message: that his view of Australia is more Buck House than Beijing.

Photo by REUTERS/Mechielsen Lyndon.

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5 of 9 This post is part of a debate on A larger Australia

Nick Bryant is the author of the forthcoming book The Rise and Fall of Australia.

Australia requires a rhetorical rethink, for the language used to describe itself is ridiculously out of date. Take the vocabulary of isolation and peripheralism.

Old-fashioned constructs like 'the land down under' and 'the antipodes' are misleading because they grew from Australia being at the opposite end of the earth's surface to the country's one-time colonial master. The 'tyranny of distance', like 'the lucky country', comes from a book title that has long out-lived its usefulness.

Surely it is also time to ditch the language that routinely casts Australia as a country still in the throes* of adolescence, struggling to reach maturity. Please.

Part of the reason why national identity debates in Australia can be so tortuous and stale is because the vernacular and terms of self-reference have not kept pace with the country's changing place in the region and the world. Australia, for all its unique idioms and colourful turns of phrase, has not been very good at describing its new character. Instead, it typecasts itself in ways that comport with how the rest of the world mistakenly views it.

When Australia took on the revolving presidency of the UN Security Council last September it even placed a stuffed marsupial in the office alongside the chamber that goes with the temporary job. Australia is one of the most active and respected countries on the 15-member Security Council. Why the need for such self-denigrating props? Australia needs to escape this boxing-kangaroo way of thinking.

The phrase 'punching above its weight,' as Michael Fullilove pointed out during his excellent speech at the National Press Club, falls into this same category.

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It has become a cliché shorn of meaning. Nowadays, Australia has a punch that it is commensurate with its commercial, economic, demographic and artistic clout: that of a beefy middleweight. Besides, I've always thought that the pull exerted on Australia from different and often competing directions – Washington, Beijing, other Asian capitals, Whitehall and Buckingham Palace — offers a more useful way of thinking about foreign affairs than the pugilistic frame.

I also agree with Michael about the danger of Australia getting punch drunk, and mistakenly concluding that 'if we're already punching above our weight, then there's no need for us to do anything more.' And I like the eye-catching title of his speech, A Larger Australia, and the sizeable thinking behind it.

The Big Australia debate is often framed as an argument about demographics and immigration quotas. But the Larger Australia debate should also be about the national and political mindset. It is important to distinguish between the two, because recently they have been at odds. During my six years covering Australia for the BBC, the political mindset became smaller, narrower, more inward-looking and closeted. In contrast, the national mindset, whether expressed by Cate Blanchett taking Sydney Theatre Company productions to New York or Macquarie Bank buying up more American infrastructure, was ever more expansive and ambitious.

In politics, the turning point — or pivot, to use the fashionable diplo-speak of the day – was the 2010 federal election, which followed the ouster of Kevin Rudd. For him, personal and national ambition were entwined, and both extended far beyond Australia's borders. Julia Gillard's aspirations were more easily accommodated at home. At the outset of the campaign, in a strategically placed story on the front page of The Sunday Telegraph, she signaled her preference for a Small Australia. This policy announcement, aimed squarely at Sydney's western suburbs, married with her comments on The 7.30 Report during her first overseas trip as prime minister, when she admitted she felt more comfortable in Australian classrooms than international summits. In distancing herself from Kevin Rudd, she distanced Australia from the rest of the world.

With the then opposition leader Tony Abbott also indicating that he preferred to be a stay-at-home prime minister, the 2010 campaign had a distinctly municipal feel. It was as if Gillard and Abbott were competing to become the mayor of a medium-sized city rather than contesting the leadership of an ever more thrusting and consequential nation.

The Harvard academic Niall Fergusson, who happened to be visiting Australia at the time, could scarcely believe his ears. 'It is true to say that there is a quality of Australian political debate very reminiscent of local politics in Glasgow when I was growing up,' he told the ABC's Mark Colvin. Crikey's Bernard Keane called it the 'little Australia' campaign.

The 2013 campaign was not much better. 'I don't think we should be getting above ourselves here,' said Tony Abbott during another ABC interview, when asked if Australia should support American airstrikes against the Assad regime. 'We are a significant middle power but no more.'

Gillard and Abbott, who tended to bring out the worst in each other, took the old maxim that 'all politics is local' to the point of absurdity.

It is time have a national debate of a quality, scope and ambition that is not constrained by the supposed small-mindedness of the electorate — a small-mindedness, I would argue strongly, that is overstated. Just as Australian politicians think that Australian voters are more xenophobic and racist than they truly are, they are exaggerate their insularity. This 'political parochialism' stands in the way of larger Australia thinking.

It is not just politicians who are guilty. Sections of the media are also complicit. As Michael says, it is ridiculous that the airmiles racked up by Kevin Rudd as foreign minister should merit a tabloid hatchet job. At the time of Xi Jinping's rise to power in Beijing, it was striking that an uneventful visit to Australia by Charles and Camilla was lavished with more attention on commercial television and in the tabloids. This was not only Small Australia thinking but also Old Australia thinking: British century rather than Asian century.

What also struck me about Michael's speech was that it was the kind of oration that should truly come from the prime minister. During my time in Australia I was constantly struck by the visionless rhetoric of the political class. Instead, short-termism was built into every statement, sound-bite and dreary slogan. Again, the preference is for political parochialism rather than anything more farsighted or expansive. Debate not only obsesses about the border, but also stops at the border. This is a speech, then, that the modern crop of politicians seems incapable of delivering.

Michael Fullilove says that 'a larger foreign policy is one that combines two qualities: ambition and coherence.' Alas, since the 2010 election, these are qualities rarely evident in Canberra. Australia's politicians prefer to think small.

Photo by Flickr user Andru1308.

* Thanks Mark.

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syria war refugee siege united nations

On the day last week that the UN Security Council met to discuss humanitarian access in Syria, the main gates of its New York headquarters were fastened shut, with diplomats told that a snowstorm had made it too 'dangerous' to enter. Instead, they were ordered to make a ten-block detour along icy sidewalks that seemed even more treacherous.

There are times when the UN can be frustratingly bureaucratic and dysfunctional. But the impasse in the Security Council right now owes more to disagreements between the member states than organisational inertia. The 15-member body is the sum of its parts, and when those parts work against each other, as they are at the moment, gridlock ensues.

At issue currently is a resolution drafted by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan that demands an end to the besiegement of Syrian cities, a halt to indiscriminate shelling by the Assad regime, and humanitarian pauses to allow for the delivery of aid (across Syria's borders if necessary). It also condemns what it calls 'increased terrorist attacks' and demands that all foreign fighters withdraw from Syria.

It is precisely the kind of binding resolution backed by the threat of sanctions that the UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos would like to see. For fourteen months, she negotiated humanitarian access in the Old City of Homs, which secured the evacuation of 1400 people. But Homs accounts for just 2% of the 250,000 Syrians who are currently besieged, mainly by the Assad regime but also by opposition forces. Those trapped people do not have another fourteen months to wait, and desperately need humanitarian aid immediately.

For the Australian mission, the draft resolution is the product of months of work.

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Last October, seeking to harness the momentum from the chemical weapons resolution that was passed in a rare moment of unanimity, Australia successfully pushed for a Security Council presidential statement on humanitarian access that drew Russia's support.  Australia's UN ambassador Gary Quinlan hoped then that the presidential statement, a toothless document, would eventually become a full-blown resolution. Now he hopes that moment has finally come.

The P3 powers (America, Britain and France) are pushing hard for the resolution, having shelved it in the run-up to Geneva 2 for fear of alienating Russia and thus complicating the task of bringing the warring sides to the negotiating table in Switzerland. With the humanitarian situation worsening at an alarming rate, and with the Geneva talks having collapsed, they are pressing for the Security Council to act. The war actually intensified during the Geneva talks. The aerial bombardment of Alleppo has made these past few weeks some of the bloodiest of the war.

In a re-run of previous impasses over Syria, Russia remains implacably opposed to the wording of the Australian-sponsored draft. It complains that it is one-sided and would provide a pretext for military intervention, even though the resolution is not backed by the threat of force. Nor does it adequately address rising terrorism within Syria, according to Moscow. It has come up with a resolution of its own, with terrorism its main focus.

Within the privacy of the Security Council (many of its sessions are held behind closed doors) there have been fiery exchanges. Last week, Russia's permanent representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, denounced the resolution as a PR stunt designed to humiliate Russia. Angrily he read out a series of headlines stating that Russia would veto a humanitarian resolution, even though the very news reports he quoted were written following a briefing he gave to correspondents covering the UN.

Western diplomats stress they are not looking for a Russian veto. They are clamorous for a meaningful resolution. Samantha Powers, America's ambassador to the UN, says there has to be a strong resolution or there will be no resolution. But saving the resolution from a Russian veto will require compromise.

In Washington, meanwhile, President Obama has asked his advisors to come up with new policy options, which speaks of the administration's Syria malaise, especially now that the diplomatic track in Geneva has run into a brick wall.

The worry for UN officials is not just Russian obstructionism, but Moscow's lack of decisive influence on the Assad regime. In talks with Russian diplomats in Damascus, UN humanitarian officials often receive a sympathetic hearing but are told there is only so much Moscow can do. There are limits, it seems, to Russian leverage. The failure of Geneva 2 has demonstrated that, too.

In her office on the 33rd floor of the UN headquarters, Valerie Amos, Britain's former High Commissioner in Canberra, is growing increasingly exasperated as she studies maps of Syria with huge swathes of the country shaded in red, representing the areas under siege. When, three years ago, she started negotiating with the Assad regime, one million people were in need of humanitarian assistance. Now that figure is nine million.

Photo by Flickr user FreedomHouse.

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'Can we speak to the Australian president?' enquired a journalist in the media centre at the UN, evidently unaware that the country is still a long way from having a mate as its head of state.

Likewise, requests to meet the new Australian prime minister would also have ended in disappointment, even if a couple of old ones were on hand. Kevin Rudd was in New York, cutting a rather lonely figure, for meetings of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation. So too was Julia Gillard, to take part in the Clinton Global Initiative, where she spoke about her government’s carbon tax, a policy that may grant her something of a prime ministerial afterlife on the former-world-leader circuit.

But Tony Abbott left it to Julie Bishop, his foreign minister, to represent Australia.

I ran into Ms Bishop on the sidewalk on the first full morning of the UN General Assembly session, and she spoke briefly of her 'baptism of fire.' During her time in New York, she met with the foreign ministers of all the Permanent Five members of the Security Council, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, and conducted bilaterals with regional foreign ministers.

Of these, the most eye-catching was obviously her encounter with Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, where tensions emerged on the vexed boat people issue, which inadvertently leaked to the press. Addressing the General Assembly, Ms Bishop explained how the Abbott Government would put 'economic diplomacy at the centre of our foreign policy.'

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Like most of the speeches delivered here, however, it received little attention. The truth is that only about four speeches during the entire General Assembly session got the full concentration of the press corps: those from America, Iran, Syria and Israel. That is why the media centre resembles a television shop, with banks of plasma screens but most of them rendered mute.

In any other week, the UN press gallery would have paid more attention to the meeting of the Security Council that Bishop chaired, which passed a resolution combating the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons. It is the first comprehensive Security Council resolution on this issue, and it passed with almost unanimous support (Russia abstained). Australia’s UN ambassador Gary Quinlan called it a 'good result, a good product.'

Intended as the centrepiece of Australia’s presidency of the Security Council, it was overshadowed completely, however, by a meeting next door of the P5+1 (or E3+3, as it is also confusingly known), which brought together John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Zarif, along with the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China.

Throughout the week, the rollout of a Bishop on the international stage obviously paled in significance alongside that of a cleric. The hype surrounding new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was even likened to the launch of a new iPhone. Sure enough, the big headlines of the week came from a handshake that didn’t happen between Rouhani and Barack Obama, and a fifteen minute phone call that did.

When the Security Council met on Friday night to pass the resolution enshrining the chemical weapons handover deal, the voice of Gary Quinlan announcing an historic 15-0 vote was broadcast around the world. While it was her prerogative to chair the Security Council, Ms Bishop had to catch a flight back to Australia so that she could prepare for the trip to Indonesia. With all fifteen members of the Security Council co-sponsoring the resolution, it became a 'president’s text', something of a rarity on a body where the P5 are often at loggerheads.

Australia’s role was largely procedural. The detailed negotiations on the draft resolution involved the P5 powers, while the final agreement on the text involved another face-to-face meeting between Kerry and Lavrov. But Gary Quinlan and his team are now trying to harness the diplomatic momentum from this unexpected moment of unity by pushing for a presidential statement allowing for greater humanitarian access in Syria.

In aid delivery, the disunity of the Security Council has undercut UN agencies operating on the ground. Because a resolution would take more time, Australia has joined with Luxembourg in pushing for the statement. Gary Quinlan believes it is important, on the back of Friday’s resolution, to send a 'strong unified message quickly.' He hopes it will be agreed upon by Wednesday or Thursday.

The Iranian overtures, combined with the resolution on Syria, made this one of the more eventful General Assembly gatherings in memory. The response to the chemical weapons attack on 21 August has also made September an unusually eventful month. Ambassador Quinlan has kept a steady and confident grip on the gavel.

Photo courtesy of the Department of the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs.

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When the British took up the rotating presidency of the Security Council in June, they drove a double-decker bus into the forecourt of UN headquarters as part of their diplomatic launch party. The Australians have made a less showy entrance, merely offering fellow Security Council members Lamingtons, egg-and-bacon pies and sausage sandwiches at a breakfast on Wednesday morning, and coming up with the hashtag #Ozprez for followers on social media. Visitors allowed into the soulless office allotted to the president of the UN Security Council will also notice the appearance of a toy kangaroo. 

Perhaps the simple fact that Australia is presiding over the Council for the first time since November 1985 is eventful enough. Or maybe the Australian mission would have tried to make a bigger splash had the presidency not coincided with Australia's election campaign.

The word from their headquarters on 42nd St is that the caretaker provisions have not complicated planning. No worries, is the public line. 'A little bit of unpredictability makes things interesting', says Ambassador Gary Quinlan. 'It has complicated things a little, but no problem.'

Kevin Rudd's decision to bring the election forward by a week has helped. It means the new government's foreign policy team will be in place a few weeks before 'leaders' week', when government heads travel to New York to address the General Assembly.

Not that you will hear any Australian diplomat say so, but it helps, too, that the polls point to a clear-cut result. A re-run of the uncertainty that followed the 2010 election, which saw weeks of negotiations over the formation of a minority government, would have been disastrous. During leaders' week, Australia would not have had a prime minister with a clear electoral mandate. That said, nobody yet knows whether the prime minister or foreign minister will represent Australia, although invitations have been sent to the leaders of other Security Council members, in the hope of a top-level gathering.

The fact that Australia's presidency of the Security Council coincides with the General Assembly, that annual diplomatic trade show, is overall a positive.

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On the downside, September is the only month when the 193-member General Assembly can get more coverage than the 15-member Security Council. On the upside, it means that the main Security Council session planned for that week, at which Australia, as president, chooses the issue for discussion, will command more attention from world leaders in New York.

Earlier in the year, it was thought Australia would champion the issue of women in post-conflict situations. Instead, it will shine a light on the problem of small arms. The aim is ambitious: to get a resolution passed at the Security Council strengthening the framework for tackling small arms, the first in UN history. It is an attractive issue for Australia because it cuts across so many areas of the UN's work, from preventing violence against women and children to protecting blue-helmeted peacekeepers, from disarmament and demobilisation in post-conflict situations to the management of weapons stockpiles. Additionally, it is an issue with resonance in the South Pacific.

Australian diplomats face a hard sell, not least because Russia and China are two of the world's biggest small arms exporters. Veto-wielding members of the Permanent Five, they are referred to these days as 'the blocking minority'. Though Australian diplomats say they are not spooked by the challenge, it will be hard to get 'product', the lingo in Turtle Bay for a resolution.

As well as small arms, Australia has called a meeting during leaders' week on Yemen. But the country that will likely dominate talk at the UN over the coming weeks, Syria, is not even on the formal agenda at the moment. In the provisional program of work for the Security Council agreed in New York on Wednesday morning, it is included only as a 'footnote'. At present, Gary Quinlan says there is no point in having a Security Council discussion because, with the P5 deadlocked, it leads nowhere.

For sure, the 'presidency' sounds grander than it is; more of a company secretary sort of role than a galvanising chief executive. The work of the Security Council is also heavily diarised, depending on which mandates are up for renewal or which countries, like DR Congo or Haiti, require on-going situation reports, which means the presidency follows more so than shapes an agenda. Also scheduled every month is an open debate on the Middle East, although the word 'debate' is somewhat misleading since member states simply read out prepared statements rather than engaging in a freewheeling discussion.

What's more, the real power on the Security Council obviously lies with its Permanent Five members, the US, UK, France, Russia and China. For the crucial closed-door meetings in the aftermath of the suspected chemical weapons attack, when the UK was trying for a brief time to introduce a resolution authorising force, the non-permanent members of the Security Council were not even invited.

Still, Australia has already built a reputation as one of the UNSC's activist members. When whispers start going through the UN press gallery, what has been noticeable in recent weeks is how often they mention Australia. Britain, France and Australia called for an emergency session of the UNSC over the crisis in Egypt. Again, the same trio demanded an emergency session in response to the Ghouta massacre. Australia is the pen-holder on negotiating the fresh ISAF mandate in Afghanistan for when the present one expires in October. It chairs the Iran sanctions committee. No other non-permanent member cuts such a high profile.

As an aside, I was also struck last week, as the debate swirled about the legality of military action without a UN mandate, how much attention Gareth Evans' ideas about 'responsibility to protect' received in the international media.

With the possibility of US military action over the coming weeks in Syria, and with the P5 just as deadlocked as ever, it is an especially challenging moment to take up the presidency. But the team from 42nd St do not seem to be the sort of bunch to suffer stage-fright.

Photo by Flickr user Joffley.

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Australian diplomacy had a very different look and feel when I arrived here at the back end of 2006. John Howard was still the prime minister, just as George W Bush and Tony Blair remained in charge in Washington and Westminster. Consequently, there was a strongly post-9/11 'war on terror' feel to the conduct of foreign affairs.

The big global story then was not the rise of China, but the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Howard Government was embroiled in the oil-for-wheat AWB scandal and under attack from a workaholic shadow foreign affairs minister by the name of Kevin Rudd, who was seeking to undermine the Government's reputation and boost his own.

Maintaining the relationship with Washington was the overriding priority, even if it incurred political damage at home. For many Australians, the treatment of David Hicks at Guantanamo Bay violated the country's fairness doctrine. John Howard's refusal to ratify Kyoto also reinforced the sense that he was out of touch and overly loyal to his Texan friend and soul-mate. But it made strategic as well as ideological sense to the then prime minister.

Regionally, the most nettlesome problems were Fiji and the Solomon Islands. The most controversial military deployment was neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan, but rather the insertion of the ADF into the Northern Territory. Back in September 2006, only one digger had lost his life in Afghanistan.

Though still a year off, the biggest diplomatic diary item was the forthcoming APEC summit in Sydney. In those days, however, the coverage of international news organisations still had a distinctly Atlantic bias, and we paid comparatively little attention to the geopolitics of the Asia Pacific.

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Tellingly, the main story to come from APEC was the slapstick of the Chaser Boys gate-crashing the party. As for the domestic press corps, the drama unfolded behind the scenes, as senior cabinet figures met secretly to discuss a plan to oust John Howard. Still, APEC provided a portent of things to come. By then, Rudd was Labor leader, and hinted at Australia's, as well as the world's, diplomatic reorientation by showing off his fluency in Mandarin.

Shortly after my arrival, there was a G20 finance ministers meeting in Melbourne, but it came at a time when the focus was still on the G8. Why, George W Bush reportedly did not even know of the existence of the G20 until Kevin Rudd put him right in a late-night phone conversation from Kirribilli.

It was also a period when the BBC Australia's correspondent was never troubled by visits from British prime ministers or foreign secretaries. Tony Blair, who ventured here prior to becoming PM to meet Rupert Murdoch and his senior executives, never made a prime ministerial visit. Nor did his foreign secretaries, though Jack Straw planned to visit but had to cancel en route for family reasons.

Despite Britain's neglect, however, Australia could still make its favourite diplomatic boast: that it was punching way above its weight. And both leaders of the major parties, John Howard and Kim Beazley, had a strong, if Washington-centric, worldview.

Their passion for foreign affairs highlights one of the most noticeable changes between then and now. Neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott has demonstrated anywhere near the same intellectual engagement with the world beyond these shores. Set-piece foreign policy speeches have the feel of a Box-ticking exercise, part of their job description. Many of their domestic priorities, from border protection to the 'small Australia' policy over the 'big', have a distinctly parochial air. Recently, ahead of her visit to China, Julia Gillard was gracious to appear before the Foreign Correspondents' Association in Sydney, becoming the first prime minister to do so since Bob Hawke. But in the Q&A session afterwards, she delivered what felt like stock, briefing-paper responses.

The irony, as I have noted before, is that the world has never shown so much interest in Australia, economically, politically, diplomatically and culturally. Still, there is a nagging sense that neither Ms Gillard nor Mr Abbott has fully returned the compliment.

Another paradox, given Canberra's insularity, is that the famed Aussie punch is stronger than ever before. That said, the challenges of balancing the security relationship with Washington and the commercial rapport with China now require gymnastic as well as pugilistic skills.

The most perceptible shift here is that Australia's growing 'middle power' strength has been institutionalised in the enhanced role of the G20, the heightened importance of APEC and through membership of the UN Security Council.

It has also been diarised. There is the new strategic dialogue with China, which has been put on an annual footing — Julia Gillard's most eye-catching foreign policy success. The AUKMIN talks with Britain are now a yearly affair, which reflects a newfound sense of diplomatic parity unrecognisable from the imperial condescension displayed by Whitehall in the not so distant past. As part of a wider geographic rethink, London has recognised that Australia is indeed in the right place at the right time. William Hague has referred to 'Facebook diplomacy' and the importance of global diplomatic networks. A great admirer of this country (after all, they say that an Australian is a Yorkshireman with a suntan) he has elevated Australia into being a much more important 'friend'.

Washington senses this, too. Indeed, who would have thought, when I came here in 2006, that a black US president would one day fly to Canberra to announce an 'Asian pivot'.

The consequentiality of Australia is now a given. It is reflected in the growing number of news organisations that have either boosted their presence or coverage here (the Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Bloomberg) or set up shop (Sky News UK, Al-Jazeera, Guardian Australia). The agenda has changed, too. Australia is central to the seismic geopolitical story of our age: the rise of China. Few countries offer a better vantage point from which to gauge the problems and prospects posed by China's inexorable rise, an advance that seemed somewhat abstract only six years ago when we still used the phrase 'emerging nation'.

Twitter had not been invented when I arrived here from India, so DFAT's enthusiastic, if sluggish, embrace of e-diplomacy marks another obvious shift. Like so many other technological developments, it has removed one of the traditional obstacles to Australian diplomacy: distance.

Australian diplomacy remains hampered by funding constraints. Nor can it speak with a clarion voice on human rights, given its handling of the boat people problem. Listening to Bob Carr deliver the British High Commission's Magna Carta lecture in Sydney recently, which was a paean to human rights, it was hard not to think of the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, not to mention Christmas Island.

Happily, my next posting, as the BBC's New York and UN correspondent, will keep me in close contact with Australia. In September, you will take the presidency of UN Security Council, and another chapter will be opened in your diplomatic and national rise.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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5 of 27 This post is part of a debate on The Iraq war ten years on

One of the oddest parties I have ever attended was held at 'Ground Zero', the courtyard in the heart of the Pentagon so named because it was a key target for the Soviet nuclear arsenal in the event that the Cold War suddenly turned hot.

The military top brass, serenaded that afternoon by a country & western band and served ice cold lemonade, was in buoyant mood. Baghdad had fallen. President George W Bush, following his Top Gun touchdown on the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, had declared that major combat operations in Iraq were over, before the now infamous banner declaring 'Mission Accomplished.'

'Stuff' was happening inside Iraq, as then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offhandedly acknowledged, after the scenes of mass looting in the capital. But this was very much a celebration, and an unabashed one at that. After all, there was a feeling that in the deserts of Mesopotamia, America's 'Vietnam Syndrome' had finally been put to rest.

Rarely in my BBC career had I delivered a piece to camera that was so at odds with the background mood. Was it not premature, I asked, to hold a victory party when Saddam Hussein had not yet been found, nor a single weapon of mass destruction? Often with television stand-uppers it takes a few tries to get a stumble-free take. With each rendition, I received more disapproving glances. But to us, at least, it seemed a statement of the obvious: the Iraq war was far from over, and the toughest challenges lay ahead.

Ten years on, the Iraq war inventory makes for grim reading. America's military dead number 4487, with an additional 31,965 military personnel wounded in action. The Iraq Body Count database estimates that between 112,000 and 122,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq. The mental cost, both for the Iraqi people and the returning US servicemen and women, is incalculable but profound.

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Whatever the changes wrought in Iraq, the financial cost has been colossal. According to the Congressional Research Service, the price tag has been US$802 billion. According to Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz it is closer to US$3 trillion —that would be roughly one-fifth of America's national debt.

Thinking at the Pentagon is now radically different from how it was on that balmy afternoon in 2003, when the sense of military possibility seemed pretty much limitless. As former Defence Secretary Robert Gates memorably put it in early 2011, anyone now advocating a land war in the Middle East or Asia should 'have his head examined.' Nor would anyone propose an open-ended military commitment elsewhere. America cannot afford it, and nor would the American public countenance it. The Pentagon's new strategic guidance document reflects this new political and fiscal reality: 'US forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.' Again, a statement of the new obvious.

A decade on, the 'Vietnam Syndrome' has been superseded by the 'Iraq Syndrome', a hesitancy to embark on new military adventures, a rejection of the doctrine of pre-emption, a return to multilateralism and international cooperation and, as in Iran, a heightened reliance on diplomacy and sanctions. There is a preference, as in Libya, to 'lead from behind', and to fight wars, ideally unmanned, from above. Military planners have come to rely much more heavily on drones and covert action. Counter-insurgency strategies are no longer centred on overwhelming force.

Syria has demonstrated America's strong aversion to enter into conflicts where there is no clear 'exit strategy', even in the face of such stark humanitarian need. A doctrinal approach to foreign policy, favoured by George W Bush and neo-conservatives, has been replaced by pragmatism applied case-by-case.

Far from being a symbol of American military might, as it was in 2003, the Pentagon itself reminds us of the country's relative decline. Over the next decade, it faces budget cuts totaling US$487 billion. Some of its giant aircraft carriers, awaiting refurbishments that the navy can no longer afford, cannot leave port. This includes the Abraham Lincoln.

Doubtless there have been moments of celebration since that 'Ground Zero' hoedown in 2003. The Iraq surge. NATO's involvement in Libya. The killing of Osama bin Laden. But ten years after the Iraq war, the Pentagon is a very different place. A mood of circumspection now prevails.

Image courtesy of Flickr user nkdby.

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Ed. note: the Lowy Institute is hosting a conference this Friday on Football Diplomacy: Australia's Engagement with Asia Through Football.

For me, Australian diplomacy has never been about the punch, however much DFAT is portrayed as the departmental equivalent of the boxing kangaroo. It is more about the pull.

Were one to look for an appropriate sporting analogy, the tug of war does not really work, because Australia is yanked in so many different directions, and pushes in them, too. Eastward towards America. Northward towards China. Westward towards Britain. Recently, India has also exerted a certain draw.

Instead, Australia requires a national metaphor that captures its diplomatic multi-directionalism. Might I humbly suggest football?

First off, the game here has adopted both the American and British nomenclature. It is widely referred to as 'soccer' but is run by Football Federation Australia. It has decided to ditch Oceania and pitch its tent firmly in Asia. However, it also retains a uniquely Australian flavour. This, after all, is the land of the Socceroos, the Matildas, and, at the junior level, the Olyroos.

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Football Federation Australia knows it should orientate itself towards its near neighbours, hence the 'Gateway to Asia' theme of its failed World Cup bid. But Australia also considers itself to be part of the footballing Anglosphere. Australia's finest players head for the Premier League. Manchester United and Chelsea are followed with just as much enthusiasm, if not more, than the Perth Glory or Adelaide Roar.

Of all Australian sports, football is by far the most demographically representative. The national team is packed with the sons of immigrants: Schwarzers, Aloisis, Ognenovskis, Brescianos. Its star player, Tim Cahill, was born in Sydney of a Samoan mother and an English father of Irish descent. In a nation of immigrants, it is the migrant game. Rare among the footballing codes, at the school level girls are as heavily involved as boys. Needless to say, it is also the only truly global team game.

The worldwide dispersal of Australia's footballing talent is also representative of the country's high-achieving diaspora. Current members of the national squad make their living as far a field as Russia, Uzbekistan, Holland, South Korea, Denmark, England, Qatar, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Germany and the US.

When it comes to global benchmarking, football is also usefully analogous. Up until 1974, the Socceroos failed to qualify for the World Cup, but the expectation now is that Australia will always make the finals. The best the Socceroos can normally hope for is to reach the last eight. But they would be disappointed not to make the final 16. A middle ranking power, should not Australian diplomats also be looking for top 16 status, while occasionally enjoying final eight influence? Occasionally, they might even pull off a bigger upset.

But the main reason I think the game works as a metaphor is because the Socceroos are great exponents of 'pragmatic improvisation', a phrase Graeme Dobell used in a recent post which rang true for me. They have been known to play 'home' fixtures in Britain. In Australia, in another sign of its flexibility, the team has no fixed abode (it has played at the MCG, Etihad Stadium, the new AAMI Stadium, the ANZ Stadium, Sydney Football Stadium and Suncorp). Often it cannot call on all of its best players, but usually makes the most of what it has got. In another demonstration of its adaptability, soccer has not been unafraid to call on outside coaching talent: Guus Hiddink, Pim Verbeek, Holger Osieck.

The Socceroos are flexible, nimble and geographically wide-ranging, three attributes that could also serve Australia well over the course of the Asian Century.

So no more let it be said that Australia punches above its weight in the diplomatic arena. Instead, it criss-crosses the field like a globe-trotting Socceroo.

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Let the footnotes of history record that, in the week the Gillard Government published its Asian Century White Paper, Australian readers of The Economist saw on its cover a picture not of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney but of China's new leader, Xi Jinping. The campaign story, 'America on a knife-edge', merited only a sub-heading, and the fourth one at that.

No doubt this would be much to the Prime Minister's liking. In launching the White Paper at the Lowy Institute, some of her strongest remarks were targeted at the local media for neglecting the region on its doorstep, comments that will strike many journalists as a bit rich coming from a leader who once almost boasted of her lack of passion for foreign affairs.

Watching the BBC World News these past few weeks, it was interesting to see my own news organisation give equal billing in its on-air promos to the presidential election in America and the leadership transition in Beijing. In another symbolic move, London dispatched our World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, to Beijing, when at US election time he would normally be reporting from Washington.

Was it not also telling that the New York Times' most explosive story of the past month was an October surprise for the outgoing Chinese premier Wen Jiabao rather than Obama or Romney? In terms of scandal, Bo Xilai and his wife also served up much richer copy than any of America's political couples. Perhaps for the first time, Chinese politics produced a story with tabloid as well as broadsheet allure.

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Australia is well served by its Beijing correspondents, with Stephen McDonell of the ABC and John Garnaut of Fairfax as notable stand-outs. Richard McGregor, an Australian journalist who covered China for the Financial Times, is also the author of the acclaimed The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers. Elsewhere in the region, there is no shortage of fine Australian journalists reporting back from Japan, Indonesia or Thailand. Just look at ABC's regional strength, with correspondents of the calibre of Zoe Daniel, Mark Willacy and Helen Brown.

But there are supply-side problems. Newsgathering in China is obviously enormously difficult, given the Communist Party's strongly authoritarian, censorious and secretive streaks. Even the most rudimentary information, like the date when the Communist Party conclave was due to end, is hard to come by, according to TIME's Hannah Beech. And it can be difficult for journalists to get accreditation, although China is probably more accessible now than outsiders would think.

Storytelling is also a challenge, and not only because of language and logistical barriers. We are witnessing a seismic global shift, but finding ways of telling that story, over and over, requires imagination as well as diligence.

I found this when serving as the BBC's South Asia correspondent based in Delhi. There were only so many times you could film a call centre or contrast the shimmering mirror glass headquarters of its global out-sourcing giants with the slum conditions nearby. As the BBC's Asia bureau editor Jo Floto told me: 'The story of China is a story of process — of social and economic change — rather than events.' That is why the Bo Xilai story was such a sensation: it was a running Chinese news story that demanded updates everyday.

Asian coverage, in Australia and beyond, suffers more from a shortage of popular demand rather than problems with supply. For the reasons that Michael and Sam discuss, it is inevitable that America's great carnival of democracy, with its rich human tableau, should generate more excitement that the rather monochrome, heavily stage-managed events in the Great Hall of the People. Inevitably, the race for the White House is more riveting than the make-up of the Politburo Standing Committee.

So I doubt whether there will ever be parity between the news coverage of America and China. Beijing is unlikely ever to have the news entertainment value of Washington, or box office stars like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. Better to hope that a more Asia-literate country will come to demand more Asian news, not out of a sense of geopolitical correctness but through genuine interest.

Clearly there is a long way to go. Just contrast the discrepancy in coverage on commercial news bulletins of the Chinese leadership transition with the visit of Charles and Camilla. In a sign of Australia's resilient Anglo-Celtic heritage, the cameras captured them on Melbourne Cup day watching from the VIP box as Green Moon, an Irish-bred horse, raced to victory.

Let's hope this kind of coverage of Asian Australians will also soon be a thing of the past: Channel Nine's A Current Affair 'racist beat-up' about the 'Asian invasion' of a shopping mall in the northwest Sydney suburb of Castle Hill, which was debunked within hours by the local paper. What Channel Nine put to air was not Australia in the Asian Century. It was Australia in the nineteenth century.

Photo by Flickr user slimmer_jimmer.

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What role does Australian multiculturalism have to play as the Asian Century progresses? At a time when the country is reaching out to its neighbours, it seems axiomatic that Australia should celebrate its ethnic diversity and particularly the contribution of its Asian-born citizens.

Unsurprisingly, then, multiculturalism receives a strong endorsement in the White Paper, along with a realistic appraisal.

Australia has by and large managed its increasing ethnic diversity successfully. But there have, from time to time, been difficulties. Australia needs to continue to strengthen and build upon our institutional frameworks to address racial discrimination and to preserve and promote social cohesion and inclusion.

Recently, multiculturalism has come under fire in Europe. David Cameron believes it has 'encouraged different cultures to live separate lives'. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared it 'dead'. Here in Australia, their arguments have found an echo from conservative commentators, like Greg Sheridan of The Australian and Gerard Henderson of The Sydney Institute.

However, a new book from Melbourne academic Tim Soutphommasane, Don't Go Back To Where You Came From, argues not only that it works, but also that Australia has come to rival Canada as the world's most successfully multicultural country.

Just as Australia's economic model has proven unusually robust, the same is true of its multicultural model. 'Australian governments have always balanced the endorsement of cultural diversity with affirmations of national unity,' writes Soutphommasane. 'The freedom to express one's cultural identity and heritage has been formalised as a right...but this has been balanced by civic responsibilities.' It's a winning formula, he says, and gives Australia an in-built advantage at the start of the Asian Century.

For all that, the country could do better.

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To begin with, the positive language of the White Paper seems at odds with the government's increasingly unwelcoming immigration and asylum seeker policies. Notes Soutphommasane: 'For many, the retreat from population growth and immigration, along with a hardened posture on asylum seekers, could be seen as a proxy attack on the conditions for a multicultural Australia.'

The White Paper claims also that Australians with Asian heritage have become 'active participants in Australian community and civic life'. But Soutphommasane shows that they are largely absent from the country's national institutions. Parliament can only boast three politicians of non-European background: Penny Wong, Lisa Singh and the indigenous Liberal MP Ken Wyatt. Wong is Canberra's only Asian-born politician.

The Australian Defence Force does not do much better. The 2007 Defence Census showed that 94% of the permanent members of the ADF were born in Australia, the UK, Ireland or New Zealand. Only 1% of permanent members hail from Asia.

Nor does Australian television, with the obvious exception of SBS, hold up a mirror to the country. Neighbours has not had a character of Asian background who has lasted more than a year. Commercial television especially could do much better, and there is a commercial imperative to do so. The ratings success of shows like MasterChef and Australian Idol is no accident. Both are more representative of the new Australia.

'A form of Anglo-Celtic community still defines the theory and practice of government,' he notes, and animates its national stories. But even in the ANZAC legend can be found 'unlikely dashes' of Asian flavour. Consider the role at Gallipoli and in France of Billy Sing, a sniper who was born of a Chinese father and British mother.

What makes Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From especially resonant is that Soutphommasane is the son of refugees. His parents escaped Laos following the communist rise to power in 1975, and made their home, via France, in Sydney's western suburbs. His study, which is both a history of the massive demographic changes that have overtaken this country and also a manifesto for placing multiculturalism at the very heart of national life, makes a vital and timely contribution to the Asian Century debate. 

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So Barack Obama has become only the second Democratic President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to win re-election, although there is little of the same sense of history, excitement or possibility that marked his victory four years ago.

The 'Yes, we can' candidate seen in 2008 ended up fighting a mainly negative campaign. Based on the fear of a Romney presidency rather than the hope of an Obama second term, at times he took the low road rather than scaling the mountaintops as he did four years ago. Vague about his plans for the next four years, he can hardly claim a ringing mandate.

That will certainly be the view of a hostile House of Representatives, still controlled by the Republicans, and GOP Senators, who can thwart him with the filibuster. The dysfunction of Washington, where brinkmanship has replaced bipartisanship, looks set to continue.

Broadly speaking, this was indeed a status quo election. But worryingly for the White House, congressional Republicans are even more partisan. Leading moderate Republicans, like Olympia Snowe of Maine and Richard Lugar of Indiana, will not be returning to Capitol Hill after Christmas. Looking ahead to the 2014 mid-term elections, the situation in the Senate could significantly worsen, since Democrats are defending more vulnerable seats than the Republicans.

Now that the Republicans' strategy of obstructionism has failed to limit Obama to one term (the stated aim of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), perhaps there will be more compromise. The ongoing negotiations over the so-called 'fiscal cliff' will be a crucial test.

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Wrong side of demography

For the GOP, Romney's defeat is a massive loss. No president since Roosevelt has won re-election when the unemployment rate is above 7.2%, and presently it stands at 7.9% (though crucially it stands at 7% in Ohio). This should have been their year. Worryingly for the GOP, it is hard to think of an alternative Republican out of 2012's lacklustre field of candidates who could have performed better.

The Republicans really are on the wrong side of demography. In 2008, 67% of Hispanics voted for Obama. Romney did even worse, winning only 27% of the Hispanic vote. Hispanics now make up America's largest minority. In 1992, as the BBC's Jonny Dymond notes, they made up 2% of the electorate. Now its 10%.

The GOP's success in the late sixties to late eighties, when it won five out of six presidential elections, was based on the 'southern strategy', targeted at disgruntled white voters. Now it needs a Nevada strategy (a once reliably Republican state trending Democrat, where Hispanic population has grown 80% over the past ten years) or a California strategy.

Certainly, the party needs to reach out to new constituencies. Lindsey Graham, the Republican Senator from South Carolina, puts it best: 'We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.'

A national election?

Oh for the races of old, voters in the battleground states must be thinking, after being carpet-bombed these past few months with negative advertising and presidential candidates. The battleground is shrinking to such an extent, as Adam Liptak notes, that this is no longer truly a national election. To bastardise Obama, it is not a blue states of America, or a red states of America, but a battleground states of America. In 1960 and 1976, 30 states were up for grabs. This year the focus has been on just ten: Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The political myopia is depressing turn-out, as Liptak notes, and having a distorting effect on policy. The biggest states in the union, New York and California, are completely ignored.

Small wonder that veteran commentators like Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker have repeated their calls for a national popular vote, something, of course, which will never happen.To boost turn-out, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has even called for America to adopt Australia's compulsory form of voting. Again, a non-starter.

Debates

I was among the many commentators who argued that, historically speaking, the televised debates rarely deserved the hype they now receive. This time, the first debate really did alter the dynamics of the race, though not enough, we will continue to note, to alter the outcome.

The debates do seem to growing in importance, perhaps because we are seeing the marrying of political culture and popular culture: an 'American Idol' effect. Television talent shows, in harness with social media, have greatly empowered viewers. They are also very in-the-moment; the focus is on a singular performance, rather than on what has come before. Is not the same now true of the televised debates? It helps explain why, in the space of ninety minutes, Romney could successfully reposition himself as 'Moderate Mitt'. We also saw something similar in the Republican primaries, where the 27 debates constantly changed the complexion of the race and made it so volatile.

Good policy makes good politics

It is an old adage in political circles, and one that seems to have been borne out by this election. A key moment of this race came not in 2012, but 2009 with the bail-out of the auto industry. It helped keep Michigan, Romney's home state, solidly Democratic. Crucially, it helped Obama win Ohio. We talked before the election about Obama's 'Midwest firewall'. The auto bail-out was one of the main reasons why it proved so flame-resistant.

Big issues

The fiscal cliff was barely discussed, nor climate change until Super Storm Sandy ripped through the north-eastern seaboard. Contrast that with the lavish coverage of trivialities, like the treatment of Romney's pooch, and 'gotcha moments' like the 47% tape. Foreign affairs hardly got a look in.

Overall, this was a fairly dismal campaign. As I have written elsewhere, for those predicting America's decline, this campaign will not only have provided new footnotes, but entire new chapters.

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