Lowy Institute

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.


Ambassador Gary Quinlan chairs a UN Security Council meeting, 27 September 2013. (REUTERS/Adrees Latif.)

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.

Photo by REUTERS/Mechielsen Lyndon.

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.


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.


'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.


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.


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.

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.


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.