Lowy Institute

There are times when national and sporting narratives seem almost to be perfectly synchronised. America’s success at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, which presaged the Reagan landslide later in the year, offered golden proof that the country’s long national nightmare of Vietnam and Watergate had finally come to an end. The 2008 Beijing games confirmed China’s rise, and became a curtain-raiser on the Asian Century. What’s been noticeable this year, however, is the disconnect between the politics and sport of the game’s two most successful countries, the USA and UK, which came first and second in the medal table.

Britain voted to leave the European Union partly because of fears about immigration. Yet its hero of the Rio games, as in London four years earlier, was Mo Farrah, a Somali-born athlete who has emerged over the past four years as the face of British multiculturalism. Brexit has fuelled Scottish nationalism, because voters north of the border wished to remain within the European Union, yet it was the Scottish tennis player Andy Murray, who favoured independence, who carried the Union flag at the opening ceremony in Rio.

Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump, in promising to make America great again, has repeatedly said that the US doesn’t win anymore. Yet Team USA dominated on the track, in the pool and at the gym. It came away with its biggest medal trawl since 1984, when its tally was artificially inflated by the Eastern bloc boycott. In the run-up to Rio, America witnessed its worst racial tensions since the Los Angeles riots of the early-1990s. Yet it was the wondrous Simone Biles, a 19-year-old African-American gymnast, who stole the country’s heart, and hoisted the Stars and Stripes at the closing ceremony.

In Britain and America, the Olympics have inevitably aroused patriotic and jingoistic sentiments. On both sides of the Atlantic, this has been a fortnight of feel good fun. But will Rio produce more lasting feelings of unity, togetherness and commonality?

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The extraordinary success of Team GB has brought about national rejoicing but not necessarily national unity. Rather, Rio has become a proxy battleground for Remainers and Brexiteers. 'Team GB’s Olympic medal haul is a blissful break from Brexit blues,' read a headline in The Guardian, playing to type. 'Britain’s Olympic success and post-Brexit vim are cause for celebration not cringe,' read an equally predictable headline in The Daily Telegraph. The Independent, focusing on the implications of a possible economic downtown on the funding of elite sport, asked: 'Could this be Team GB’s last great Olympics after Brexit?' When the anti-EU campaign group Leave.EU posted Tweets using the images of victorious British athletes to make a point about the UK’s national self-sufficiency, Team GB threatened to sue.

In other words, Rio gave the protagonists in the referendum something new to argue over. It also demonstrated the impossibility of conducting any kind of national conversation in Britain without it being dominated by Brexit. This will also be true, no doubt, when the flame is lit in Tokyo in four years time, and also in 2024, which two EU countries, France (Paris) and Italy (Rome) are competing to host.

So what of the USA? Has America’s Olympic success got a political dimension? Judging by the presidential candidate’s use of their social media accounts, it would seem that Hillary Clinton believes that Team USA’s feel good success is far more useful to her candidacy than Donald Trump. As Politico reported, the billionaire has been almost Trappist in his silence about the Olympics and America’s great success. His nativism also seems at odds with such an obviously multi-cultural Team USA, a group of athletes that looks like the country it represents.

What’s been striking about the advertisements airing in America during the Olympics is how many of them feel like rebuttals of Donald Trump. Coca Cola has run an ad called 'Together is beautiful' featuring Americans in hijabs as well as cowboy hats. Mini’s 'Defy Labels' features the American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who says 'Muslim' down the barrel of the camera. Apple’s ad 'The Human Family' feels like a Benneton ad on steroids and features a poem read by Mayo Angelou, who took part in Bill Clinton’s inauguration. This has been a terrible few weeks for Donald Trump, and the Olympics, while not being the primary or even the secondary cause, have not helped. Clearly, America is great when it comes to sport.

As for the question of will the Olympics forge a greater sense of national togetherness, I suspect not. Somewhere, soon, there will be another multiple shooting, another racial flashpoint, another moment in the campaign that exposes that polarisation that is now a permanent feature of American politics. The Olympics was about red, white and blue success, but the broken politics is more about the deep divisions between red and blue.

Election Interpreter 2016

In the midst of this crowded political season, dominated naturally by the US presidential election and Brexit referendum in Britain, the international bandwidth left available for the Australian election will surely be taken up with one simple question: will this vote end the 'Here Today, Gone Tomorrow' phase in the country’s prime ministerial politics?

Given the frequency with which Australians go to the polls — is it not time to revisit the question of longer parliamentary sessions? — and the regularity that party rooms oust sitting prime ministers, the world will watch to see if this election will deliver something that’s been lacking in Australia for almost an entire decade: political stability.

The possible scenarios sketched out by foreign diplomats based in Canberra for their superiors back home will have changed as the polls have narrowed. Six months ago, they could reasonably have predicted a thumping Turnbull win, which would have been regarded as a strong personal mandate and possibly brought about a return to the days when Australian prime ministers had the word 'era' ascribed to their names. But Turnbull’s popularity has waned since ousting Tony Abbott, and he has not lived up to high-ish international expectations.

Now those diplomatic cables are doubtless more circumspect. If Turnbull wins narrowly, with a reduced parliamentary majority, then the political volatility could easily continue, because he will always be prey to a challenge from the right. Likewise, if Labor ekes out a narrow victory there will be the prospect of more killing seasons. Bill Shorten is hardly a commanding presence, after all. Then there is also the real possibility of a repeat of 2010, with no clear result: a hung parliament producing minority government.
With polls suggesting a closer-than-expected race, Australia could be in for more 'continuity and change', the slogan used both by Turnbull and the HBO satire 'Veep' that rather aptly sums up the prolongation of revolving door politics. This would diminish the country’s standing in the world.

Often lost in the intrigue and palace gossip of Canberra’s coup culture is how it looks internationally. That much-vaunted Aussie punch has been weakened by the unpredictability surrounding which prime minister will deliver it. Longevity brings clout, but Turnbull is the fourth Australian prime minister in the space of three years.
International summitry and the personal diplomatic chemistry it nurtures has seldom been so important, but new faces continually emerge from that RAAF VIP plane. Foreign leaders could be forgiven for not investing hugely in forging partnerships with modern-day Australian prime ministers. Who knows how long they will survive?

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Back in 2009, Barack Obama might reasonably have thought that Kevin Rudd would be around for his entire presidency. They clearly enjoyed a special relationship. Senior administration officials made it clear he was the President’s new best friend;  'a match made in Kevin', according to the Sydney Morning Herald. But Rudd was gone by the congressional mid-terms in 2010.

The diplomatic damage was driven home to me the other day when, while watching archive footage of the G20 summit in Petersburg in 2013, I noticed Bob Carr hovering in the background, not unlike a newcomer at a crowded party nervously trying to connect with other guests. Carr, deputising for Rudd who was campaigning in the federal election, did not even hold the customary press conference at the end of the summit, which left the world’s media 'puzzled,' according to the Guardian, not least since Australia was down to host the next G20 in Brisbane. By the time the world’s media descended upon Queensland, Abbott was in charge, and moaning to his fellow leaders about a $7 GP payment, as if to prove how parochial Australian politics had become.
The merry go round of prime ministers not only presents a family photo problem at the end of summits —  who will show up? — but also a big picture problem. What is the Australian narrative? What is the long-term national strategy? Where does the country place itself in the region and the world? No recent prime minister has been around long enough to convincingly outline that vision, let alone see it through. It’s a far cry from the certainty of the Howard years, when the prime minister was in place for more than a decade, as were his foreign minister and treasurer.

For further evidence of how the chaos in Canberra undercuts Australian international leadership, just consider the problems facing Kevin Rudd as he pursues his long-shot bid to become Secretary General of the UN. These difficulties flow not solely from gender; with the search on for the first female Secretary General, he fails the so-called 'testicular test'. Or geography; he hails from Queensland rather than Eastern Europe. UN diplomats are also aware of the personality and managerial flaws that received such a public airing during his ouster from power, and the subsequent leadership spills that culminated in his return. His rival Helen Clark, by contrast, has the full backing not only of her former Labour colleagues but also of John Key,  who defeated her to become prime minister.
The wide-held view among diplomats up until the start of the year was that Malcolm Turnbull had the look of a prime minister who might break the cycle, and stick around for a while. Like Rudd, he has the intellectual smarts and stature to become a global player, as well as the same internationalist leanings. That said, his roll-out on the international stage has been hampered by that nagging question, ‘is he worth investing in'? Besides, that other new kid on the block, Justin Trudeau of Canada, has eclipsed him. It is harder to convince the world that there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian when so many of Trudeau’s international admirers believe that to be truer for Canadians.

Yet, despite all the political uncertainty at home, Australia has achieved diplomat success abroad in the last nine years. It seems to be managing its balancing act between the US and China considerably better than the UK, whose 'Asia Pivot' has drawn scolding criticism from the Obama administration. It enjoyed a successful tenure on the UN Security Council, largely thanks to ambassador Gary Quinlan and his talented team. But the churn of prime ministers has weakened the country’s influence and standing. International observers marvel at Australia's 25 years of continuous economic growth, but scratch their heads at the volatility and brutality of its politics.

Photo: Getty Images


When the rest of the world dealt with Australia in the past, it was familiar figures that emerged from the VIP planes and who stretched out their experienced hands. For over a decade during the Howard years, Australia not only had the same prime minister, but also the same foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer, and treasurer, Peter Costello. Never before in Australian political history had there been such continuity of service.

Nowadays the planners of APEC summits especially must suffer sleepless nights. Do they order an exotic shirt to the frame of Tony Abbott or Malcolm Turnbull? Do they tailor a shirt or a blouse? 

With five prime ministers in as many years, so much change has come in such a short space of time that it has surely damaged the conduct of Australia's foreign affairs. No Australian prime minister can cast a long shadow on the international stage for the simple reason they do not get to stride it for long enough. The personal chemistry so important in international diplomacy seldom gets the chance to brew.

Kurt M. Campbell, the former US Assistant Secretary of State, used to say that Barack Obama had more of a mind meld with Kevin Rudd than any other international leader. But the relationship never reached its fruition because Rudd was ousted so quickly.

What adds to the sense of disorientation internationally is that these overnight changes of leadership can come with sudden changes of personal belief and style. Turnbull, a committed environmentalist, republican and foreign policy thinker with more of an Asian focus, has replaced a climate change sceptic, monarchist and Anglophile. Rudd, a thrusting internationalist and multilateralist, was replaced by Julia Gillard, a prime minister who told the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien in an early television interview that she had no great appetite for summiteering.

What were fellow world leaders to make of that?

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Presumably, their Canberra-based ambassadors would have informed their capitals that Gillard made that statement for domestic consumption: it was a calculated attempt to distance herself from Rudd rather than the rest of the world. But it spoke of another glaring problem of the rolling regicide of the past five years. Prime ministers are so consumed by their own survival in office that it breeds the kind of Canberra-centric parochialism that has become a hallmark of Australian politics. This insularity – what Peter Hartcher has aptly called the 'provincial reflex' – found voice at the G20 summit in Brisbane when Tony Abbott shared with world leaders his frustration at opposition to his proposed Medicare co-payments. The brutopia has gone hand in hand with a chronic myopia.

In international diplomacy, a seniority system is at play based not just on national but personal rankings. World leaders naturally tend to accrue more influence the longer they spend in office, partly because political longevity is a currency that fellow prime ministers and presidents understand and respect. Angela Merkel cuts such a dominant figure in Europe not only because she is the German Chancellor but because she has been in office for almost ten years. Before that, Jacques Chirac, who served 12 years as President, enjoyed equivalent clout. John Howard came to wield such influence on the international stage partly as a result of his 11 year tenure.

Regular changes of leadership undercut diplomatic influence and even basic global citizenry. It is hard, for example, to see an Australian prime minister being asked to become a 'friend of the chairman', as Rudd was ahead of the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009, for the simple reason they might be a no-show. In the late-1990s, Peter Costello played a crucial role in establishing the G20, partly because he was such a well-known and well-connected figure among global finance ministers and central bank governors.

Nor is it only prime ministers who have had shortened tenures as a result of the revolving-door politics. Since Alexander Downer, no foreign affairs minister has made it to three years in the post. If you combine the time that Stephen Smith, Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr and Julie Bishop have criss-crossed the planet, it still falls a long way short of Downer’s 11+ years. 

What is impossible to measure is the impact on Australia’s soft power of the mocking international press coverage that greets each change of leader.

As I write, The Washington Post, the parish pump of the Beltway, is running a video showing Tony Abbott repeatedly eating a raw onion. In a piece for the BBC, I’ve called Canberra, not for the first time, the 'coup capital of the democratic world.' Once again, commentators around the world are struggling to understand why the developed world’s most stable economy has produced its most unstable politics – they are flip-sides of the same coin. One of the challenges for Malcolm Turnbull, a figure harder to lampoon than Abbott, will be to stop Australian politics from being a global laughing stock – to stop the virals.

Obviously, Australian foreign policy can still function in spite of the chaos in Canberra. Important foreign trade deals have been struck with China, Japan and South Korea. Rudd helped elevate the G20 to the leader level, making it a far more significant body. Successful prime ministerial visits have been made, such as Julia Gillard’s trip to China in 2012 which scored a coup of a different kind: a commitment to annual leadership talks. Australia’s first spell of president of the UN Security Council in September 2012 started with Rudd in charge and ended with Abbott, but its two-year stint was still a success (partly because of its highly respected ambassador Gary Quinlan).  

But that famed Australian punch surely would have been firmer had it been delivered by one or two prime ministers over the past half-decade rather than five. 

 (Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images)


The view from New York

Six months into its membership of the UN Security Council, New Zealand will get to wield the gavel at the famed horseshoe table in New York over the course of this month.

Occupying the president's chair will be the Kiwi's new Permanent Representative, Gerard van Bohemen, a refreshingly direct and down-to-earth diplomat who served as deputy head of the mission the last time New Zealand was on the Security Council in the early 1990s. He has taken over from the newly knighted Sir Jim McLay, a former deputy prime minister who commanded New Zealand's successful UN Security Council campaign and last month took up a new position as the country's representative to the Palestinian Authority. 

So far New Zealand's big play on the council, to draft a resolution setting out parameters for a final Middle East peace deal, has come to nought. France and Jordan, the representative of the Arab states, have produced resolutions of their own, and have told New Zealand that a third draft would complicate their efforts. But the Arab League sees July as an opportunity to push for such a resolution, increasing international pressure on Israel, knowing that New Zealand will give it a sympathetic hearing.

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully has not given up hope the Kiwis can help spur the Israelis and Palestinians into action, distant though that possibility seems.

Earlier this year, as relations between Washington and Jerusalem soured, the Obama Administration signaled that it might finally countenance such a resolution, partly in diplomatic retaliation for Benjamin Netanyahu's speech before Congress, in which he lambasted the nuclear deal with Iran. In recent weeks, the US has resumed its traditional role of protecting Israel at the UN, although it's also been deliberately ambiguous on whether it would veto a European-backed resolution.

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'Up until this point, we have pushed away against European efforts,' Barack Obama told Israel's Channel Two in early June. But the President also noted that America's support for Israel at the UN was complicated by the widespread perception within the international community that Netanyahu was no longer serious about a two-state solution. 

Benjamin Netanyahu, after meeting Murray McCully in Jerusalem earlier this month, sounded a warning to New Zealand and others pushing for a Middle East peace resolution. 'The main thing we have learned,' the Israeli Prime Minister said pointedly, 'is that peace is achieved, as we did with Jordan and with Egypt, through direct negotiations between parties, and not by fiat.' But the very fact that Israel is even paying attention to New Zealand is testament to the diplomatic clout that comes with membership of the Security Council. On the most nettlesome international issue of them all, Wellington* has become a significant player, if not a decisive or central one. 

The presidency of the Security Council gives members the chance to push their pet projects, and New Zealand will seek to promote the interests of small island developing states, or SIDS as they are known in an organisation addicted to acronyms. The viability of South Pacific tuna fishermen rarely gets an airing in Turtle Bay, but that could change in late July when New Zealand convenes a thematic debate chaired by Murray McCully, at which small island states can bring their concerns to the table. 

The last time New Zealand presided over the Council, the genocide in Rwanda dominated proceedings (the New Zealanders argued forcefully for the UN not to flea Rwanda). This time, the overriding international issue looks set to be the nuclear deal with Iran, the original deadline for which was yesterday, though it looks to have been extended by a week. Given that all the P5 members are signatories to the framework deal, the Security Council is expected to rubber-stamp any agreement. But New Zealand, in its presidential role, will be involved in the nuts and bolts of the oversight provisions and the relaxation of UN sanctions. 

New Zealand's diplomats, though refusing to benchmark themselves against their trans-Tasman rivals, were impressed with how Australia approached its two years on the council. The former Aussie Ambassador Gary Quinlan and his team showed what a temporary member could achieve. As the influential Jerusalem Post noted last month, in language that will sound familiar to Australian ears, New Zealand could hardly be regarded as a 'diplomatic heavyweight', but its membership of the Security Council means it is 'punching above its weight.' 

* My apologies. This piece has been corrected after I inadvertently relocated the New Zealand capital. Not only am I aware that Wellington is the home of government, but also of the finest coffee shop I have ever had the good fortune to visit, which is just across the road from the Beehive. I have not only apologised to the New Zealand ambassador in person, but also to my Kiwi-born wife.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.


Prime Minister Cameron gives a speech following the election result. (Flickr/Number 10.)

So the next five years in Britain look set to become a tale of two unions: the centuries old union between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and Britain's relationship with Europe. And although polling day produced an unexpectedly clear result, rarely has an election brought with it so much national uncertainty.

On a night when the tectonic plates of British politics not only shifted but completely changed shape, the success of the Scottish National Party provided perhaps the largest drama. In the 1950 election, it received just 0.5% of the vote. Last Thursday, it attracted 50%, winning 56 out of 59 seats. So does this near monopoly on Scotland's seats at Westminster mean that independence is now inevitable, and that the supposedly 'once-in-a-generation' question posed in a referendum only last year will soon be revisited?

Here it is worth remembering that the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, the undoubted star of the campaign, ran against Westminster-imposed austerity rather than Westminster-imposed rule, although many of her supporters doubtless conflated the two. She did not set out to make the 2015 general election a re-run of the 2014 referendum. Nor is she demanding a new referendum in the near term. What's more, half the Scottish electorate voted for parties other than the SNP.

But with the politics of Scotland so divergent from the politics of the rest of the country – in Northern Ireland, the pro-union DUP ended up with the most seats – the sense of grievance and separation may well grow, and with it more urgent demands for independence.

For all the party's newfound strength at Westminster, the SNP could have ended up in a far stronger position in the event of a hung parliament. Had Labour required its tacit support to form government, Nicola Sturgeon might have ended up as Britain's second most powerful politician. Now that the SNP is the third-largest party in the House of Commons, it might become harder to prosecute the argument that Westminster is alienated from Scotland.

In the end, the future of the union might well turn on the new Conservative government's response to the Scottish question. Senior Tories such as London Mayor Boris Johnson have already raised the possibility of a new constitutional arrangement: some form of federalism or 'devo max', which would grant full fiscal autonomy.

But to those who think that Scottish independence is now all but inevitable, the example of Quebec might be instructive.

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So much power flowed from Ottawa to Quebec City after two failed referenda, in 1980 and 1995, that devolution quelled much of the ardour for independence. French Canadians experienced many of the benefits of quasi-independence, such as determining their own immigration rules and Francophone education policies, without suffering the economic pain. Now, there is no great appetite for a third referendum, especially among the young.

Along with the Scottish question, the English question looms large. The huge number of Westminster seats now occupied by Scottish nationalists makes it even more apposite. Many English voters are already disgruntled that Scotland receives a disproportionate share of government spending. In the final days of the election, the fear that Nicola Sturgeon might unduly influence Ed Miliband became a vote-winner for the Tories. The English are also restless.

Over the next two years, however, British politics will be dominated by the European question: the possible withdrawal from the EU or, to use the shorthand, 'Brexit'. David Cameron has promised an in-out referendum on Britain's continued membership of the European Union by the end of 2017.

Personally, he wants Britain to remain part of a reformed EU. He rejects of the notion that Europe should be 'an ever closer union'. But Germany and France, the countries that have driven closer integration, are opposed to the Cameron agenda. For all that, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande might be willing to grant concessions on voting rights and immigration rules that would enable Cameron to argue in the run-up to a referendum that his demands for reform have been partially met.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU's new chief executive, has already offered talks on reforms aimed at cutting red tape. But the EU has also made it clear it will not agree to major treaty changes such as ending the free flow of immigrants from poorer countries to the rich, which has caused such resentment in Britain and fueled the rise of UKIP.

Maybe now that Cameron has a majority of his own, he will be viewed in Europe as a more forceful leader, strengthening his bargaining position. But that cuts both ways. EU leaders will be hoping that because Cameron achieved a clear-cut victory, he will be able to sell more modest reforms in a referendum.

Brussels would have noticed that the election showed political nationalism to be a strong force not only in Scotland but in England as well. That usually translates into anti-EU sentiment. Though UKIP secured only one seat in parliament, it gained 12.6% of the vote. Its previous high was 3.1% in 2010. The Conservative Party also has a vocal Eurosceptic wing. Its most powerful figure is Philip Hammond, who will continue as Foreign Secretary.

Just as the election campaign was inward-looking, the next five years may well see the same myopia. The two great questions of sovereignty and independence could easily suck up much of the national bandwidth. Besides, with deeper cuts to the defence budget expected, reducing it to below the NATO guideline of 2% of GDP, military interventionism will become harder.

Those defence cuts could put further pressure on the special relationship with Washington, that pillar of British foreign policy. So, too, the commercial thrust of David Cameron's foreign policy, in which Britain has sought closer ties with China. The Obama Administration, angered by the UK's decision to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, has already bemoaned what one senior Administration described as ' a trend toward constant accommodation' with China. Those are the two obvious stress points in the relationship.

One hates to quote Dean Acheson's famous putdown that Britain lost an empire and failed to find a role, but it has echoed down the years primarily because of the UK's uneasy relationship with the rest of Europe. Now it also faces a more existential dilemma: does the United Kingdom still want to be the United Kingdom?


When the seven leaders of Britain's bigger parties met for their only televised debate of the campaign for the 7 May general election, foreign affairs barely received a mention, other than the usual back and forth about the EU and the munificence of the foreign aid budget at a time of economic austerity.

Vladimir Putin was ignored, even though national security officials fear that one of the gravest threats to the UK right now comes from Russian spy planes testing British airspace, which they fear could result in a calamitous mid-air collision with a passenger jet. Iraq went unmentioned, despite the flow of British young men and women heading to the Middle East to fight alongside ISIS, and the participation of RAF bombers in the US-led coalition.

When foreign affairs and Britain's place in the world have been discussed it has tended to be in the context of domestic politics, and the haggling that might follow an election unlikely to produce a clear winner. The future of Britain's nuclear deterrent has become enmeshed in the discussion of whether the Labour Party would be forced into an informal alliance with the Scottish National Party, which wants to scrap the Trident nuclear submarine fleet. David Cameron's promise of a referendum on Europe was intended to blunt the challenge on the right from the UK Independence Party, which is demanding a complete withdrawal from the EU. The European question is primarily a discussion about immigration.

What made the silence on foreign affairs all the more noticeable was that it came just days after The Economist, the parish pump of the international commentariat, published a stinging piece on Britain's shrunken role in the world entitled 'Little Britain.' 'For a country that has long been respected for the skills of its diplomats, the professionalism and dash of its armed forces,' The Economist noted disapprovingly, 'the global outlook of its political leaders and its ability to punch above its weight, the decline has been unmistakable.'

The critique also included a rebuke from Senator John McCain who stated that cuts in the defence budget — which is expected to drop below the 2% of GDP mark expected of NATO members — 'diminishes Britain's ability to influence events'.

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Britons watch their prime ministers attend commemorative events for the two world wars, and see them at summits like the G7, and tend to assume that the country's traditional lead role in global affairs is assured. But there's been a noticeable slippage. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is viewed by the Obama Administration as the dominant European leader. The French, rather than the British, have become the most interventionist European power, deploying troops in the Central African Republic and Mali. When it came to negotiating the Ukraine ceasefire between Moscow and Kiev, it was Merkel and Francois Hollande who brokered the deal rather than David Cameron, a notable absentee. As its failed campaign to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker to the presidency of the European Commission demonstrated, Britain is often isolated in Europe.

Moreover, Britain remains an Atlantic power in an ever more Pacific world. The Cameron Government has sought to remedy this by improving relations with China and beefing up its diplomatic footprint in the region. As part of its Asian pivot, it has elevated the importance of the Commonwealth and the diplomatic relationship with Australia, making the AUKMIN talks an annual affair.

However, courting China in a purposefully trade-driven foreign policy has irked the US. After Britain signed up to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a senior Administration official bemoaned the UK's 'constant accommodation' of Beijing. That unusually barbed comment would have reverberated in Whitehall, because it implied that the much-vaunted special relationship is no longer quite so special. It speaks again of a shrunken international standing.

If Ed Miliband becomes prime minister, it is hard to imagine him pursuing a more interventionist foreign policy. In August 2013 he opposed David Cameron's attempt to gain parliamentary approval for military action in Syria, consigning the vote to defeat in the House of Commons. He has also distanced himself from the military adventurism of the Blair years. Besides, his focus and background is in domestic affairs.

The fractured state of British politics, with its coalitions and deal-making, may also militate against boldness in foreign affairs. Prime ministers have to look beyond their own backbenches for parliamentary support, and coalitions tend to be more unwilling.

That may well be in line with the cautious mood of the British electorate. Commemorative events for the two world wars still produce a massive public response, as evidenced by the enormous popularity of the haunting poppy installation at the Tower of London to mark the centenary of the Great War. But after Afghanistan and Iraq, there's no appetite for new conflicts. National self-esteem is buoyed by past glories, and British politicians are preoccupied with problems closer to home.


This will go down as the gong heard round the world. On a national day that already has a distinctly 18th century feel – it celebrates the moment of British colonisation, after all — Tony Abbott appeared to doff his cap to the Mother Country again in making Prince Philip an Australian knight.

The re-introduction of a heraldic honours system that many Australians viewed as a museum piece was met last year with incredulity. His choice of the Duke of Edinburgh, ahead of thousands of deserving Australian women and men, has unleashed even more mockery. It was a 'captain’s call', said Mr Abbott, and arguably the worst since Greg Chappell asked his brother Trevor to bowl underarm to New Zealand's Brian McKechnie. That damaged Australia's international sporting standing. The surprise knighthood could have the same effect on the country's international reputation, especially in the region.

In any objective cost-benefit analysis, Abbott surely loses on all fronts. As a politician, it brings into question his judgment and could, in coup-addicted Canberra, lead eventually to his ouster. As a constitutional conservative, he runs the risk of turning small 'r' republicans into more troublesome rebels and imperiling the very institution he seeks to protect. As prime minister of a country supposedly seeking better ties with its neighbours, it makes him look more Anglo than Asian in his orientation. As historian James Curran observed in these pages earlier in the week, this move brings to mind what Paul Keating said about the 'ghost of empire' that 'remains debilitating...to our destiny as a nation in Asia and the Pacific.'

It is also worth revisiting what became known as the 'Anglosphere speech' that Tony Abbott delivered in Oxford in December 2012, before becoming prime minister.

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The setting was his old college, which, appropriately enough, is called Queen's. 'China, Japan, India and Indonesia are countries that are profoundly important to Australia', he said. '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.' This seemed to imply that Australia's relationship with its Asian neighbours would primarily be transactional, whereas the relationship with Britain and America would be brotherly, emotional and thus always more meaningful.

What gave the speech its controversial edge, however, was the insinuation that Anglo culture was superior. Abbott said his 'insatiable curiosity' came from studying at Oxford, and was 'the hallmark of Western civilization (especially in its English-speaking versions) and provides our comparative advantage among the cultures of the world.' Does not the knighthood for Philip send a similar message from the Australian prime minister to the rest of Asia? That the epitome of civilization is to be found in Anglo history and institutions?

Will this controversy reverberate beyond the Australian Twittersphere and talk-back stations? Is it just a storm in a Royal Doulton tea cup? My sense is that the knighthood does create a national image problem, because it heightens the sense of confusion about the country's global positioning. It revives the seemingly unresolved question: 'Advance Australia Where?' It projects a sepia-tinted Australia to the rest of the world rather than the thrusting economic, commercial and cultural powerhouse that modern Australia has become.

It would also be a mistake to think that this kind of symbolism does not matter. Just witness the damage to America wrought by Barack Obama's failure to attend the solidary march in Paris in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Or the sneering at US Secretary of State John Kerry, who attempted to mend that particular diplomatic fence by getting James Taylor to sing 'You’ve got a friend'. The international press, Fleet Street especially, looked on the knighthood as a gift horse, if only because it could re-run Prince Phillip's most famous gaffes. But it also makes the Australian prime minister a cartoonish figure of fun – an '...And finally' story.

Australian diplomacy will take a hit, and so, too, the already battered reputation of Australian democracy.


The farewell receptions are taking place, featuring far superior wine than is ordinarily on offer at Turtle Bay drinks parties. The diplomats that led the Australian mission at the UN during its two-year stint on the Security Council are shipping out. Ambassador Gary Quinlan and his deputy Philippa King will be missed. So will Australia's presence at the most famous table in world diplomacy. It has been an impressive stint.

The main contribution has been a significant boost in humanitarian aid to Syria. Australia authored three separate resolutions that produced the biggest humanitarian breakthrough of the near four-year conflict: allowing aid convoys to cross over the border without the permission of the Assad regime in Damascus. Up until that point over 90% of UN-administered aid had gone to government-controlled areas. Afterwards, food and medical supplies reached besieged cities where women and children had survived by eating grass.

The resolutions have also established a significant precedent, strengthening the evolving doctrine of responsibility to protect. If governments fail to protect their citizens, the international community should be able to override those governments. Small wonder that Baroness Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian chief and, incidentally, the former British High Commissioner in Canberra, came to look upon Quinlan and his team as invaluable allies. At a small gathering last week to mark her own departure from New York, Amos was abundant in her praise.

What made Australia's humanitarian contribution all the more impressive was that it meant facing down Washington, a rarity in Australian diplomacy.

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When Quinlan and his team first started pushing a humanitarian resolution back in September 2013, the Obama Administration believed it would complicate the Geneva 2 talks process, an excruciating effort to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table. Pressing for humanitarian access, the argument went, would alienate Russia, thus weakening diplomatic pressure on Assad. With the support of Luxembourg, a surprisingly influential member on the Council, and then Jordan, the Australian mission doggedly kept making the case. The Americans, whose UN ambassador Samantha Power is often cast as the conscience of the Administration, eventually relented. It was niche and nudge diplomacy: the Australians singled out an issue where they could make a vital impact, and kept on prodding the P3 (the US, UK and France) to come on board.

Australian efforts were by no means confined to Syria. It chaired important sanctions committees on al Qaida, the Taliban and Iran and served as 'pen-holders' whenever it came to drafting resolutions on Afghanistan. But Syria is where its main legacy is to be found. And a legacy it is, despite being under-reported back home in Australia.

For much of its tenure, the Australian mission had to deal with sceptics in the Coalition Government who looked upon the bid for Security Council membership as a Kevin Rudd vanity project. Senior figures within DFAT also questioned the value of Australia's membership. All that changed, however, with the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine. As Tony Abbott pressed for a Security Council resolution setting up an independent international investigation, Australia's presence on the Council proved invaluable, and so, too, the experience it had gleaned. By then, Quinlan had become something of a black-belt when it came to negotiating with Russia's wily permanent representative, Vitaly Churkin. The two had sparred regularly over humanitarian aid to Syria. Because of its humanitarian efforts, and the coalition-building that went with it, there was also a lot of goodwill towards Australia on the Council. With Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in New York to seal the deal, the resolution passed unanimously. 

Thereafter, Bishop became such an enthusiast that when Australia chaired the Security Council for the second time in November 2014, she flew to New York to wield the gavel during a number of sessions. Tony Abbott also occupied Australia's seat at the horseshoe table last September when President Obama convened a special meeting of the Security Council to discuss how to deal with foreign fighters heading to Syria and Iraq. That day it looked like an especially exclusive club. 

Membership also had other uses. At a time when the Abbott Government has attracted strong criticism at the UN for its inaction on climate change (Abbott turned up for the foreign fighter meeting, but not a UN climate summit held in New York the day before) and its harsh asylum seeker policies, its work on the Security Council has helped contain the diplomatic fallout. 

Throughout, Australia carved out an exceptional role at the Security Council. It could never hope to rival the heft of the veto-wielding Permanent Five (US, UK, France, China and Russia). But it was more agenda-setting and more activist than the other nine rotating members. It became what might be called a 'temporary member plus'. 

In so doing, Quinlan and his team delivered a punch that was commensurate with Australia's growing diplomatic weight. They deserve the plaudits and toasts.


'The provincial reflex', Peter Hartcher's coinage in The Adolescent Country, a Lowy Institute Paper released today, is a neat way of describing the chronic parochialism that has infected Australia public life for much of the past decade.

It is a period, paradoxically, when the shift in global economic activity has made Australia more central to the world. Yet an inward-looking parliament has taken the maxim 'all politics is local' to the point of absurdity. The party room has trumped the halls of international summitry. In setting national priorities, the latest polling from the western suburbs of Sydney appears to hold sway over diplomatic dispatches from Washington or Beijing.

Foreign policy has been subjugated to domestic politics. Just witness the unseemly search for a 'Malaysia Solution,' an 'East Timor Solution' or a 'Cambodia Solution' to staunch the flow of asylum seekers. All were intended to find a political solution, more so than a practical one, whatever the diplomatic fall-out.

This has been a sorry phase in Australian politics. As I argue in The Rise and Fall of Australia: How a Great Nation Lost Its Way, the 'political parochialism' of its blinkered leaders is partly the reason why: 'At the very moment when the rest of the world has shown more interest in Australia, the present crop of Australian leaders has displayed a bewildering indifference to the rest of the world.'

During this ugly era, Peter Hartcher has ploughed a lonely furrow as one of the few commentators to regularly view domestic politics through the prism of world events.

Occupying a dual role as the Political and International Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, he has never looked on these posts as the journalistic equivalent of raising twins with markedly different personalities. Rather, he looks for the common traits in both. No one writes about Canberra in a more worldly way. So when Hartcher argues that 'Australia is seriously underperforming and it is underperforming because of the pathology of parochialism,' people should take note.

What makes this parochialism all the more inexplicable is the frequency with which external events have impacted upon domestic politics.

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Ahead of the 2001 election, it was the 11 September attacks and the Tampa controversy that changed the dynamic of the race. In 2007, John Howard suffered from the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, his refusal to ratify Kyoto and the incarceration of David Hicks. In 2010, the failure of the Copenhagen global warming summit set in motion a chain of events that led to the ouster of Kevin Rudd.

As Peter Hartcher deftly chronicles, two dramatic external events, the shooting down of MH17 and the threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq, have transformed Tony Abbott's prime ministership. Hamstrung by the provincial reflex, he started off arguing that Australia should not have 'ideas above our station.' His response to MH17 in particular turned him into a more noticeable figure on the world stage and heightened his international impulses.

Abbott has ended up making just as many foreign trips in his first year as Kevin '747' Rudd – eleven. As Hartcher notes, he also realised Australia had important diplomatic tools at its disposal: chairmanship of the G20 and membership of the UN Security Council. 'In the course of a year, Abbott has been transformed,' Hartcher concludes. 'His provincial reflex has been replaced by an international inclination.'

What's striking about Hartcher's book, however, is the strength with which Abbott refutes the idea of a makeover. 'He resists the idea he has changed in any way,' notes Hartcher, who then quotes from an interview with the Prime Minister. 'The point I keep making today,' Abbott says, 'is that Australia can't change the world singlehandedly, and we shouldn't try.'

Abbott's speech to the UN General Assembly in September was punctuated by the same spasms of the provincial reflex. For a start, he trotted out the same line: 'We have never believed that we can save the world single-handedly.' But he added 'nor have we shrunk from shouldering our responsibilities.'

He also came up with what struck me as an ambitionless assertion of Australia's influence. 'We're strong enough to be useful but pragmatic enough to know our limits.' Should not Australia aspire to be something more than useful?

There were also lines in the speech, such as his celebration of the abolition of the carbon tax, that seemed aimed at a domestic audience. And the timing of Abbott's arrival in New York was telling. It came a day after more than 120 heads of government, including Barack Obama, had attended a UN climate change summit.

Abbott took no credit for the impressive work of the Australian mission in New York, a ripe example of Aussie internationalism. No one has worked harder to push humanitarian resolutions on Syria through the council than Australia's permanent representative Gary Quinlan, but the Prime Minister did not even mention of his efforts. Overall, it felt like a Small Australia speech.

My sense is that in the aftermath of MH17, Abbott had the chance to recast his global image, and in some ways he did. Here in New York, many diplomats admired his scolding remarks directed towards Vladimir Putin. Also impressive was the speed with which Australia moved in the Security Council to set up an international investigation.

But what we have seen in recent weeks sounds like a retrenchment. His absence from the climate change summit did not go down well in New York. Nor did his recent remarks that 'coal is good for humanity.' As for his comments about 'shirtfronting' Putin in Brisbane, even Australia's closest diplomatic friends thought they were hilarious. After the statesmanship displayed in the aftermath of MH17, he sounds again like a backwoodsman.

Much of this political provincialism stems from the mistaken belief that Australian voters are themselves parochial. In the same vein, politicians also exaggerate levels of xenophobia and racism of the Australian electorate. But there is an internationalist stream that prime ministers could tap. Just witness the wanderlust of young Australians, who roam the planet with their rucksacks embroidered with Australian flags, or the million-strong rolling Australian diaspora that Michael Fullilove spoke of in a previous Lowy Institute paper. Australia, with its polyglot population, is also one of the world's most successfully multicultural countries, which automatically gives it an international outlook.

That 'shirtfront' moment was telling. An Australian leader seemed to be speaking to Australia in fluent Australian, when in the run-up to the G20 he could have been addressing the world.

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.


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.


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


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.


'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.

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.