Lowy Institute
US presidential race 2016

In August two men who knew President Ronald Reagan well posted a piece on RealClearPolitics headlined 'Trump is no Reagan'. Since his campaign began, Trump has claimed the Reagan mantle but, argued one-time Reagan campaign manager (Stu Spencer) and speechwriter (Ken Khachigian), Trump has no right to do so. Pointing out that Reagan was 'genial and mannerly', optimistic about America, and refused to speak ill of a fellow Republican, the two concluded that one shared phrase (Reagan promised in the 1980 presidential campaign to 'Make America Great Again') did not outweigh the many differences.

 The article finished with this declaration:

We find no similarities other than both Reagan and Trump came out of the entertainment industry. We knew Ronald Reagan. We served alongside President Reagan. Ronald Reagan was our friend. And, Mr Trump, you’re no Ronald Reagan.

Reagan biographer Craig Shirley has questioned such rosy views of the 40th president of the United States, declaring: 'To say that Reagan never got mad or made fun of his opponents is ridiculous'. Divertingly, Shirley added, 'there’s even the hair'.

Reporters obsess about Trump’s hair but people forget they also were fixated with Reagan’s, convinced he dyed it. They went so far as to obtain cuttings of the Gipper’s hair from Drucker’s Barber Shop in Beverly Hills where Reagan had gotten his hair cut weekly for forty years. They took these cuttings to a pharmacist, but were disappointed to learn that Reagan did not dye his hair.

However, we don't have to rely on the views of those who knew Reagan. And we probably should go beyond the hair.

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This video from the 1980 campaign posted on TheMoneyIllusion, justly described as 'jaw-dropping', is enough to make you nostalgic for the past. Reagan and George H W Bush are questioned about education for the children of illegal immigrants. Bush Snr talks about the bigger problems of creating a society of 'really honourable, decent family-loving people that are in violation of the law' and 'exacerbating the relationship with Mexico'. Reagan goes even further, calling for the border to be opened both ways. 'Rather than 'putting up a fence'...why don't we make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit'.

No common ground with Trump there.

One Trump contention that was clearly shared by Reagan — the belief that lower taxes are a cure all economic panacea — is also one of the more dubious legacies of the Reagan era. As James Surowiecki, editor of the New Yorker's financial page reminded us in March, Reagan came into office promising to slash taxes, increase defense spending and keep government services intact while balancing the budget. In the end, he presided over eight years of deficits that tripled the national debt. Since then, Surowiecki noted, politicians have kept promising that tax cuts 'unleash such a tidal wave of growth that they pay for themselves'. Not surprisingly, given the personal financial gain at stake, voters keep believing them. Unfortunately, according to Surowiecki, it just aint so:

This supply-side dogma holds that, because tax cuts encourage people to work more and invest more (which is true), they can increase tax revenues relative to holding rates steady (which is not true). The empirical evidence is by now unequivocal that, with tax rates at US levels, this doesn’t work; cutting tax rates simply leads to lower tax revenues, which is why, in the wake of the Reagan tax cuts, tax revenues as a share of GDP fell. Yet for 35 years, through the Contract with America and the Bush Administration’s $1.6-trillion tax cut, the message has remained essentially the same: lower taxes, higher tax revenues. This message has been fact-checked and refuted over and over again, but, once something becomes an article of political faith, it’s difficult to dislodge.

One important phrase in this passage is 'at US levels', which are much lower now than when Reagan took office. While debate over the merits of Reaganomics continue, there is no doubt the tax cuts that Trump is promising would take the US economy into unchartered waters.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Marlon Doss


By John Fitzgerald, Director, CSI Swinburne Program for Asia-Pacific Social Investment and Philanthropy at Swinburne University, and Wanning Sun, Professor of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Technology Sydney.

On 26 May, six agreements were signed between Chinese and Australian media outlets in Sydney. Liu Qibao, Head of the Central Propaganda Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), flew in to attend the signing. Gary Quinlan, Acting Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, joined him.

Liu's visit was noteworthy. A party official with no government title, Liu is one of the most powerful Party cadres outside the seven-strong Politburo Standing Committee. His arrival marked the first visit to Australia by a Party Propaganda Bureau chief. The scale and significance of the media agreements was newsworthy as well. And yet mainstream Australian media failed to report his visit or any of the deals associated with it.

Fortunately, we can learn what happened by reading China's party and state media, which reported widely on Liu's visit and the associated media tie-ups. China Daily reported on 27 May that six agreements were signed involving Xinhua News Agency, China Daily, China Radio International, People's Daily Website, and Qingdao Publishing Group on the Chinese side, and Fairfax Media, Sky News Australia, Global China-Australia Media Group, Weldon International, and Bob Carr's Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology, Sydney, on the Australian side.

On 28 May, the Central Propaganda Bureau's flagship journal, People's Daily, pointed to the significance of the event. 'China-Australia ties will be further intensified as their media cooperation increases following the signing of a series of agreements in Sydney on Friday.'

Xinhua, China's official news agency, reported that as a result of its memorandum with Bob Carr's UTS centre, 'myths will be dispelled and cross-cultural understanding is set to grow as China-Australia media cooperation increases following the signing of these six agreements.'

Each of these deals may not amount to much in isolation. But taken together, the visit by propaganda chief Liu Qibao suggests a landmark victory for the Chinese Communist Party.

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Since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China has implemented a 'going global' strategy, including a hefty push for Chinese state media to go abroad. Taking to heart Joseph Nye's argument that soft power is 'about whose story wins (not whose army wins)', the Party has tasked the external branch of the Propaganda Bureau with the mission to 'tell the world China's story.'

At home the Propaganda Bureau's primary task is to tell China's media what can't be published. Every day it issues a list of forbidden current affairs topics to guide all media operations. The Panama Papers was recently among them. It polices some topics to ensure they never receive favourable mention, including freedom of the press, universal values, civil society, civil liberties, and so on. These prohibitions apply to its overseas publications placed in prestige media outlets such as the Fairfax press. Overseas, the Propaganda Bureau plays an additional role in ensuring that whatever is published burnishes a glowing image of China and its rightful place in the world.

As far as the Chinese side is concerned, deals such as this are not about commercial opportunity. They are about using propaganda to advance national strategy. China's media experts have done their homework on the Australian media and found opportunities to exploit the financial vulnerability of the mainstream private media market.

The failure of mainstream media to report on the Propaganda Bureau's arrival in Australia contrasts curiously with its perpetual vigilance in reporting on government censorship and deprivation of civil liberties in China. Why the silence? There is a remarkable lack of sensitivity to the possible implications of these deals for Australian standards of journalism.

Australia's commercial media have historically separated their editorial and commercial departments. But they are increasingly vulnerable. Fairfax cut 100 staff in the week leading up to the lucrative deal with the Party Propaganda Bureau. Senior executives in major television networks too can hear the death rattle of free-to-air television. All are nervous and cash-strapped. China is confident and cashed up.

At what point do the barriers separating the commercial and editorial sections of our hard-pressed commercial media start to give? We have already seen Australia's national broadcaster, the ABC, sacrifice news coverage for commercial gain in China with its AustraliaPlus.cn website. And the ABC is taxpayer-funded. How long before commercial media are tempted to do the same?

Fairfax subscribers and shareholders have particular cause for concern in the inaugural eight-page supplement of China Daily that was inserted under their mastheads on Friday 27 May. It carried a full-page article affirming China's claims to contested islands in the South China Sea under the title 'Manila has no leg to stand on.' Nothing in the piece indicated that this was paid advertising purchased by the Chinese Communist Party's Central Propaganda Bureau (though the supplement does say on its front page that it does 'not involve the news or editorial departments of The Age').

The silence that has pervaded the Australian news media over the past four days is a fitting start to the new era of media cooperation with China's Propaganda Bureau. Leninist propaganda systems work not by persuading people through what they say but by intimidating or embarrassing others into not reporting things that matter. Under the new agreements, many 'myths will be dispelled,' possibly including myths of the independence and integrity of Australia's mainstream news media.

Photo by Flickr user whatleydude.

Election Interpreter 2016

For someone who follows foreign elections, like that happening now in the US and the one Canada held late last year, I am always amazed at the level of detail at which Australian politics is usually conducted. It may be hard to see from the inside, but Australian political debate is detailed and complex when it comes to domestic issues.

For instance, look at this exchange between Leigh Sales and Treasurer Scott Morrison last week regarding the Government's policy on capping tax-free superannuation pension transfers: 

LEIGH SALES: In a speech last week the former treasurer Peter Costello said, regarding your $1.6 million cap on tax-free superannuation pension transfers, that - and I'm quoting him here: "The Government said $1.6 million was four times the age pension. This is on the assumption of a 5.5 per cent return rate. That's what the Government thinks you're going to get. Does it really think that? It's issuing bonds at two per cent." So do you really think that?

SCOTT MORRISON: The calculations are based on a 25-year average earning of three per cent above inflation: so 25 years. We don't set these measures for the next two years: we set them for the next 25 years. Now, the average return - comparable return - over the last 11 years from these funds is 6.2 per cent. So that's what has been achieved and that includes negative return years, Leigh, during the GFC. So when...

What are they talking about? I actually have no idea.

Whatever it is, it's probably a good thing for policy regarding government bond rates and for the pensioners who primarily benefit from them. However, it also shows a couple of larger points. The debate in this election is about the margins, not the base or the whole. It also shows a level of scrutiny by the media on domestic issues which it rarely puts on foreign affairs.

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A great example happened the day before the interview with Scott Morrison. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was interviewed on the same program, and after being questioned about marginal seats, Senate reform and polling, the Foreign Minister was asked a single foreign policy question at the end of the interview on the aid budget. Bishop responded that the budget commitment is leveling out and is in line with CPI.

Great, I guess. No further scrutiny needed.

In 7:30's defence, this is in line with much of what the rest of Australia's media is doing. I haven't seen much challenge from the media on either party's foreign policy stances, or the views of their leaders, or in fact scrutiny from the parties themselves. A good example was the leaders' debate on Sunday, where the only foreign policy topic that was brought up — refugees — actually saw both leaders trying their best to convince people that they back the existing policy even more than the other guy.

There are differences though. Dan Flitton has done a good job in tracing out some divisions and Georgina Downer also pointed some out yesterday. Some include:

  • Whether to reopen negotiations with East Timor over a border dispute (Labor says 'yes').
  • Labor's support for a global treaty abolishing nuclear weapons (part of the Party platform, but faces serious political hurdles with regards to extended nuclear deterrence).
  • Labor's call for the government to 'consider' conducting a freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea (Stephen Conroy called for this, but it was notably absent from Tanya Plibersek's address at the Lowy Institute today).
  • Labor's belief in a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict.

None of these are small or unimportant issues. The thing is, you wouldn't know they are points of difference. They aren't talked about or asked about. I understand that foreign policy doesn't win votes, so it usually doesn't decide elections. But that doesn't mean there should be no debate at all.

What about Australian troops and planes in Iraq and Syria? Has our mission there been effective? Do we need to commit more foreign aid there? In terms of defence, have we really nailed down the price on submarines? Is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, at an estimated $12 billion, a good buy? Where are the 12,000 Syrian humanitarian refugees the Abbott Government promised to take in September 2015? And one of Richard Di Natale's better points in his foreign policy speech at the Lowy Institute (others were less well considered): why was climate change not mentioned as a national security threat to Australia in the latest Defence White Paper? This is clearly something where Australia is falling behind compared to other Western countries, and surprisingly an issue Labor hasn't used to differentiate itself from Liberal defence policy.

Foreign policy can play a decisive role in elections, with the best example being Canada's federal election late last year. All these issues were subject to serious debate: each political party made electoral promises on Syrian humanitarian resettlement and the Liberals followed through with their commitment; Canada's foreign policy in Iraq and Syria was scrutinised; defence policy was willingly debated, and they even had a leaders-level televised foreign policy debate for the first time.

There seems to be appetite for this discussion in Australia and polling shows it. In 2006, the Lowy Poll found that 82% of respondents thought 'it will be best for the future of Australia's if we take an active part in world affairs'. While this is the most recent poll that has asked this question, I can't see this number going down in the intervening years, particularly with the global issues now facing the country.

Whatever the case, in the interconnected and uncertain world that Australia is facing, the choices will only grow harder. A higher level of debate, and informed disagreement, is needed.

Photo by Mick Tsikas - Pool/Getty Images


Over the last decade or so we have seen a race to build ports in the Indian Ocean as China, India and others compete to secure their influence in the region. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Tehran last week included signing a deal for India to build a new port in the Iranian city of Chabahar as part of a major new transport corridor to Central Asia.

This project could have major strategic consequences for the region.

Navalists often like to remind us that the Indian Ocean carries a large proportion of the world's trade, and much of its trade in energy, but that it has only a handful of narrow entry and exit points (such as the Strait of Hormuz) through which trade must pass. This geography drives competition for control over those choke points and the sea lanes between. But there is also another geographic oddity driving strategic competition in the region: the virtual absence of major transport connections between the ocean and the continental hinterland. China, Russia and other hinterland states are virtually cut off from the Indian Ocean by mountain ranges, jungles and deserts.

But this is now changing. Since the turn of this century, China has moved to develop a string of new ports across southern Asia. Some of these are intended to facilitate Chinese maritime trade across the Indian Ocean, but others are oceanic terminals for big new north-south transport links between central Eurasia and the ocean. These links include new road and rail corridors being built from China to the sea across Myanmar (to the port of Kyaukpyu) and Pakistan (to ports at Karachi and Gwadar). Other countries such as Japan and India have also stepped up their own plans to develop ports and transport links.

The Chabahar project involves the construction and operation of new port facilities by India, the creation of special economic zones and the development of road and rail connections through Iran to Afghanistan and further into Central Asia. These links are intended to be part of a new International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) between the Indian Ocean and the Eurasian interior. The deal has been under negotiation for years, but has been slowed by bureaucratic inertia (India), hardball negotiating tactics (Iran) and international sanctions.

The project is strategically significant for India, Iran and the whole region for four reasons.

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1. Chabahar's location, around 500 km east of the Strait of Hormuz, makes it an attractive prize for any country that wants to protect its energy imports through Hormuz from the Persian Gulf. Although there is no indication yet that the Indian Navy has any rights to use Chabahar port, the deal certainly creates the possibility. India would be keen to have that option in its pocket, particularly if China establishes a significant naval presence at the Pakistani port of Gwadar, some 150 km by sea further east.

2. The new link will give India direct physical access to Afghanistan. Delhi and Kabul are strategic partners of sorts, with common interests in avoiding the domination of Afghanistan by Pakistan. Currently, India's only overland route to Afghanistan is via Pakistan, which does its best to block Indian access to that country. India aims to use the new link to develop its economic connections with Afghanistan and its political influence there. The new route might also be available for the US to bypass Pakistan, a reason why Washington quietly supports the deal.

3. The project could be an important step in a broader strategic relationship between India and Iran. Some see the two countries as natural strategic partners, and indeed there have been several attempts over the last 40 years to develop a closer strategic relationship between them. India is not currently a serious security player in the Persian Gulf and there are some serious constraints on its ability to develop close strategic relations with most Gulf Arab states. Handled correctly, a partnership with Iran could significantly raise India's strategic value in the Gulf. The potential for substantial security cooperation between India and Iran would also cause severe heartburn in Islamabad – forcing Pakistan to pay much closer attention to its western border and its unstable Baluchistan province.

4. Last and not least, the project will provide Iran with a modern port directly on the Indian Ocean. During the 1970s, Iran had grand plans to become a major Indian Ocean power, including seeking naval bases or access throughout the region (as far away as Mauritius and the Maldives). Those ambitions disappeared with the fall of the Shah and now seem very far away. But we should nevertheless expect Iran to become increasingly active in Indian Ocean affairs in the coming years, and the development of Chabahar might be a significant step in Iran developing a broader strategic outlook.

But with all this said, there are several mountains to cross before the new port and transport links are operating. The Gulf region is in a state of strategic flux and it is difficult to predict Iran's strategic trajectory, including its relationship with India. Competitors such as China and Pakistan could obstruct or otherwise trump India's involvement in the project. India also has a long history of failing to exploit strategic opportunities open to it. Nevertheless, the Chabahar project could be a big step in India's regional role and alter the strategic dynamics of West and Central Asia.

Photo by Pool / Iran Presidency/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


The reported death of another Australian fighting for the Kurdish YPG is sad news. But he was engaged in illegal activity, a point made clear by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Some argue that, given the circumstances surrounding the battle against IS, we should treat such volunteers differently to other foreign fighters. At first glance this looks like an appealing argument. But the conflict in Syria is much more complex than people who hold this view acknowledge. Before others come out in support of the actions of such people, there are a couple of questions worth asking, and some answers worth mulling over:

1. We're all fighting Islamic State so what's the problem? The problem is that tactical and strategic aims aren't the same thing. Just because YPG are fighting IS doesn't mean YPG does not have broader strategic aims, such as autonomy or independence, that are definitely not shared by the Australian — or any other Western — government. Western governments can modify the political and military support they provide to the Kurds to give weight to shared tactical aims; individuals don't have that luxury.

2. The US is supporting YPG forces, so why can't Australian citizens? The first assertion is perfectly true, but given it is a state actor with control over the deployed assets, the US can ensure that its assets (both ground and air) are used against targets that are exclusively part of the anti-IS campaign. If the targets aren't tied to that aim then the support can be denied or withdrawn. The same can't be said for individual 'volunteers' in YPG. Once you're a foreign fighter you lose control over your destiny; when you cross the border you can be used by YPG against anyone YPG is fighting. Rebel groups have accused the YPG of being little better than proxies for Assad's forces, while YPG forces have also clashed with pro-Assad forces recently in Qamishli.

3. What does Turkey think of all this? The Turkish sensitivity to the provision of support for Kurdish groups was amply demonstrated when pictures of US Special Forces wearing YPG colour patches became public. This decision by local commanders to establish a degree of solidarity with their supported forces was understandable at the tactical level but strategically not smart, and it was countermanded once it became known by the Turkish government and a higher coalition headquarters. Think then how the Turkish government feels about Australians fighting for YPG who Ankara sees (with quite some justification) as a sub-branch of the PKK (a listed terrorist group). At present (and even more so in the post-IS phase) the Australian government needs the support of the Turkish government to assist it in identifying, detaining and repatriating Australian Islamists fighting for IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Ankara is hardly going to bend over backwards to cooperate with Canberra if it feels that Australia is keen to prosecute Islamist foreign fighters but not so keen to prosecute YPG/PKK fighters.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kurdishstruggle

Election Interpreter 2016

In the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook released on 20 May 2016, the secretaries of the Departments of the Treasury and Finance warned that a significant economic shock would see Australia’s fiscal position rapidly deteriorate. Could that shock come from the election of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton?

With Donald Trump clinching the Republican nomination, there is renewed interest in the implications of his policies on the US and global economies. And to say that there is concern is an understatement. Former Secretary to the US Treasury, Larry Summers, observed that:‘The possible election of 'Demagogue Donald' dwarfs congressional dysfunction as a threat to American prosperity’. There have been numerous articles with headlines such as ‘Donald Trump Economic Plans would Destroy the US Economy’ and ‘Donald Trump Announces Debt Plan that Would Collapse Entire Global Economy’. The Economist Intelligence Unit warned that a Donald Trump presidency ‘could be as damaging to the global economy as terrorism’.

The Trump economic policies causing concern include:

1. A threat to default on US debt in event of a recession. Trump said ‘I would borrow knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal’. Analysts have warned this would create an international financial crisis.

2. The deportation of 11 million undocumented people. The American Action Forum, a pro-business think tank, estimates that the sudden subtraction of seven million workers would cause an immediate shock to thousands of businesses and shrink the US economy by about 2%.

3. Cutting personal income taxes, including lowering the top marginal tax rate to 25%, and reducing the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15%. It is estimated that this would cost federal revenue  almost $10 trillion in the next decade. Trump has not indicated how such a plan will be financed and has no plans to cut spending. The US deficit would balloon.

4. The introduction of a 45% tariff on imports from China, a 35% tariff on imports from Mexico, and the repudiation of trade deals, including the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Moody’s Analytics modelled the consequences of these plans and concluded that they would risk a recession in China and Mexico and the fallout would also drag the US into recession. The damage would be magnified if China and Mexico retaliated and imposed tariffs on US goods.

It is not just Trump’s announced economic policies that are causing concern. It is also the overall incoherence of his approach to policy and resulting uncertainty. As Larry Summers noted ‘Donald Trump would for the first time make political risk of the kind usually discussed in the context of Argentina or Russia relevant to the US’.

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Lesser attention has been given to the economic consequences of Bernie Sanders becoming president because the expectation is that Hillary Clinton will get the Democratic nomination. But the policies being advocated by Sanders would also raise major concerns for the US and global economies. Sanders policies include; the introduction of free health care; substantial increases in welfare and infrastructure spending; the break-up of the major banks; a significant increase in the minimum wage; the introduction of a financial transactions tax: and the ending of trade deals including NAFTA, TPP, the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and the Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China The implementation of Sanders' policy platform would see a dramatic increase in federal spending. The price tag is estimated at $18 trillion over the next decade. To stop a blowout in US   public debt, a major increase in US taxes would be required.

The saving grace may be that if Trump or Sanders were elected, they would not implement all their announced policies. Perhaps reality would set in and they would abandon their more extreme plans. They could also have problems getting legislation through Congress. Nevertheless, both Trump and Sanders could potentially do a considerable amount of harm though the use of the President’s executive powers.

This leaves Hillary Clinton. Her economic policies have not been nearly as extreme as Trump or Sanders, although pressure from Sanders has pushed her to the far left and to repudiate many of her previous positions. Clinton no longer supports trade liberalisation, has lambasted the banks to demonstrate that she would not cave into the institutions who hosted her very well paid speeches, and now supports a high-tax, high-regulatory platform that is very different to her previous views. A Clinton administration may not raise the same concerns for the global economy as a Trump or Sanders victory, but there still would be many risks. Among those is the failure of the US to provide the leadership needed to deal with pressing global economic problems.

The outcome of the US presidential elections could pose a major risk to the global economy and in turn, the Australian economy. It is one of many external risks that Australia faces, but it highlights that those risks are very real.

The concern is that the economic debate in the Australian election is based on the premise that we will continue to face a benign international economic environment that will provide us the luxury to very gradually strengthen our fiscal position at some time in the future. But as John Lennon said ‘life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’.  If ‘life’ includes the election of President Trump, or President Sanders, Australia has little policy flexibility to deal with the economic shocks that could eventuate.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

  • The World Humanitarian Summit took place in Istanbul last week. The ODI provides a good primer. Médecins Sans Frontières stole the headlines for pulling out of the event, a decision which its Australian executive director justifies here. Louise Searle provides a summary of the summit, while Marc Purcell discusses its underwhelming outcomes.
  • A closer look at Labor’s recent commitment to spend ‘around $800 million more for overseas aid than the Liberals' over the next four years’ shows that it will hardly make a dent in Australia’s aid generosity, which is now at historically low levels.
  • Robin Davies also examines Labor’s commitment for the Devpolicy blog.
  • Meanwhile the New Zealand aid program has seen its budget increase by 12% in the 2016/17 budget to NZ$659 million, an unprecedented jump. A closer look at the forward estimates shows this as actually a symptom of unspent money being rolled forward.
  • Duncan Green provides a summary of a new report from Oxfam on the role of local institutions in accountable natural resource management. Countries in our region take note.
  • WhyDev has published a three part series on aspects of the importance menstrual hygiene plays in development. The Guardian also has a photo series on what girls in Nepal are not allowed to do while on their period.
  • On a brighter note, the latest analysis from the World Health Organization shows that globally babies born today are likely to live longer than ever before.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user AOK Library and Gallery UMBC

Election Interpreter 2016

It’s trite but true to say that all politics is local. Foreign policy rarely gets a look in at election time in Australia. Moreover, the conventional view is that the divisions between the two major parties on foreign policy questions are narrow enough to make little difference at the ballot box.

But Greens Leader Richard Di Natale’s speech to the Lowy Institute earlier this month struck a very different note. Di Natale’s view of what’s in the national interest reminded us of wide gaps that exist between the political parties.

The Coalition construes the national interest in a pragmatic, realist way. It focuses on securing Australia’s prosperity, through trade liberalisation, protecting our borders and trade routes, and maintaining a stable and peaceful Asian and Pacific neighbourhood. To achieve the best outcome for Australia, the Coalition will use whatever tools are available, be they bilateral, multilateral or both.

For Labor, the national interest means being a good international citizen. Labor is ideologically committed to multilateralism and finding solutions through international organisations such as the United Nations, and is sceptical of bilateral and unilateral agendas.

The Greens’ foreign policy isn’t as well articulated but, like Labor, party members claim to be committed to good international citizenry with a strong emphasis on environmental issues. For Di Natale (channelling the rhetoric of Kevin Rudd), climate change is the greatest global foreign and security policy challenge.

From these different positions of principle emerge fault lines.  First, trade.

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Labor has always been less than enthusiastic about bilateral trade agreements. Its bilateral scepticism was laid bare when then Labor leader Simon Crean argued that the Howard Government should focus on the Doha Round of WTO negotiations rather than pursuing its bilateral FTA agenda.

The Coalition took a more pragmatic approach, realising that while multilateral trade negotiations were stalling it was imperative to keep opening up markets for Australian trade. Under Howard, Australia signed landmark trade agreements with Singapore, the United States, Thailand, and launched negotiations with China and Japan. Despite six years in government, Labor wasn’t able to conclude a deal with Asian economic powerhouses China and Japan. In contrast, it took Liberal Trade Minister Andrew Robb just 18 months to put pen to paper with China, Japan and Korea, opening up billions of dollars of markets for Australian exporters.

Australia’s relationship with the US  is another point of divergence for the major parties. The Coalition considers the US bilateral relationship paramount and the US Alliance underpins our foreign and defence policy settings. Labor agrees in form, but in substance waivers in its commitment to the Alliance. Labor’s criticism of the Coalition being too close to Washington and compromising our Asian engagement has been a constant over the years. For the Coalition, however, a strong US presence in Asia is central to keeping East Asia stable.

Labor prefers to concentrate on our engagement with 'Asia' (assuming it is a unified regional group). Labor seeks to woo Asia and minimise causing offence in the region. Anything else in foreign policy is seen by Labor to be either counter-productive or a waste of time. While prime minister, Kevin Rudd spent a lot of time trying to rebuild Labor's credentials on the US Alliance, but struggled to alter Labor’s DNA which, from the time of Whitlam, has been uneasy with the US Alliance.

What we see from the Greens is a reinvigoration of the Whitlam-era Labor view of the US-relations. Di Natale has called for an 'independent' (ie, from the US) foreign policy, querying the benefits of ANZUS and whether it’s in Australia’s and the world’s interest. So it’s important at this election to ask the question: what would a Labor-Greens coalition mean for Australia’s foreign policy? Some dramatic policy resets would be likely.
Di Natale doesn’t see the value in Australian troops in the Middle East, joining the fight against Islamic State; he’s alone on that one, with Labor and Liberal both supportive of our efforts there.

Israel is a third source of disagreement between the parties. The Greens have always been hostile to the Middle East’s only democracy, Israel. Bipartisanship on Israel between the Coalition and Labor is starting to crumble. At the behest of Bob Carr, Australia in 2012 abstained on a vote on Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly (Julie Bishop, then in opposition, said the Coalition would have voted against the resolution) and moves are afoot within Labor (driven by the Left faction, of which Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek is a member) to recognise Palestine as a state.

Finally, on aid. One of Julie Bishop’s most significant changes upon coming to office in 2013 was to merge Australia’s aid agency, AusAID, with DFAT and reprioritise aid spending. Labor opposed these changes, but it’s unclear whether they would re-establish AusAID as a stand-alone agency. DFAT went through a difficult transition through the AusAID merger but the outcome has been a welcome alignment of Australia’s foreign and aid policies in both policy development and delivery. This is a good outcome for the target countries as well as for the Australian taxpayer in delivering efficiencies. It was a pragmatic decision, based on the national interest.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Robert Kenny


All the signs indicate that China is preparing to reject the anticipated adverse judgment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea. The Philippines is arguing that China is acting illegally in exploiting resources in the areas beyond the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) limits while forcibly preventing other nearby states like the Philippines from exploiting the resources in the same areas. If the PCA calls for China to abandon its nine-dash line claims and China rejects this finding, what options would then be available to the international community? 

The PCA is a less powerful court than the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Unlike the ICJ, it does not have the equivalent of article 94 in the UN Charter which ominously states that: 

If any party to a case fails to perform the obligations incumbent upon it under a judgment rendered by the Court, the other party may have recourse to the Security Council, which may, if it deems necessary, make recommendations or decide upon measures to be taken to give effect to the judgment.

Still, ignoring a finding of the PCA would still be significant, as it would amount to ignoring international law.  As such, members of the UN Security Council could seek a UN Security Council discussion and resolution on the matter. They could interpret a rejection of the PCA finding as highly damaging to the credibility of UNCLOS, and the decades of diplomatic work that its successful negotiation entailed. They could classify the South China Sea issue as a dispute causing international friction, and hence within the UN Security Council’s mandate. While it is inevitable that China, and perhaps also Russia, would seek to prevent the UNSC from discussing the issue, what would be the likely position of the other Security Council members?

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At least two of the Permanent Council members, the US and the UK, are taking a strong line. Despite the US not ratifying UNCLOS, President Barack Obama has strongly emphasised respecting the PCA’s findings. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has recently stated that he expects China to abide by the outcomes of the Court. France is more difficult to predict. It and other EU members have been calling for resolution of the South China Sea disputes through international law. At the same time, however, they have been unwilling to directly confront or denounce China’s more assertive actions, such as its declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea in 2013. 

Some of the non-permanent members may be willing to support a UN security council discussion of the case. Japan is speaking the language of the ‘rules-based global order’ in relation to the South China Sea. Malaysia is a claimant state in the region and appears to be increasingly concerned about the situation. However, it has also sought to maintain a ‘special bilateral relationship’ with China and to date has been unwilling to publicly confront China’s actions. It may not be willing to take a strong stand.

Australia, China and the South China Sea

Australia has a strong interest in the resolution of disputes in the Asia Pacific through peaceful means and international law. Australia sees China’s nine-dash line as an unacceptable claim and its actions as inconsistent with the rules-based global order. While China is not an obstacle to world order overall, a degree of pushback is reasonable. Any PCA ruling casting doubt on China’s nine-dash line claim represents an important opportunity for Australia to develop, strengthen and diversify its approach. Part of this can be to increase diplomatic pressure in line with Rory Medcalf and Ashley Townsend’s recent call for a broader-based campaign that increases the reputational costs of China’s unilateralist posture. 

There are two advantages of broadening and extending diplomatic pressure, especially by comparison with Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOPs). This approach does not  risk sending ADF assets into disputed zones of the South China Sea. While China’s adoption of better collision avoidance protocols has reduced the risk, a recent unsafe intercept of a US spy plane shows that there is still potential for a repeat of the 2001 EP-3 incident. This approach also avoids the perception that Australia is ‘militarising’ the issue.

Australia can expect blowback from China if it seeks to increase diplomatic pressure. A taste of this as already evident in the form of some Chinese community groups warning the government against a strong stand on the South China Sea last month. Or we can think back to the reaction to the visit of Rebiya Kadeer in 2009, when the Chinese Embassy here sought to prevent the Uighur leader speaking. 

China could threaten economic retaliation. China is alleged to have used economic levers such as its trade in rare earth metals against Japan after East China Sea tensions arose in 2010 (although this is still unproven). But China may be just as (if not more) wary of disrupting trade with Australia. As Alan Oxley recently noted, what matters more to China in the long run: national growth — and hence social harmony — or its ambitions in the South China Sea?

One point in Australia’s favour is that it has stood up to a major power before in support of the rules-based global order. In 1986 the ICJ found that the US’s Nicaragua policy violated international law and ordered the US to cease its support for the Contra paramilitary and military activities. The UNSC drafted a resolution calling for US compliance. Australia, then a non-permanent member of the UNSC, courageously supported the resolution. While the US ultimately exercised its veto, the process threw a spotlight on questionable policies in South America.

While Australia did not speak to the resolution, it likely sympathised with some of the arguments put forward. Ghana stated that ‘any development which undermines the existence and efficient functioning of the UN also undermines our own sovereignty’. Denmark stated that it ‘remained convinced of the important role of the ICJ in the peaceful settlement of disputes and of the necessity for member states to accept the Court’s verdicts’. Iran pointed out that in the ‘absence of a law enforcement agency for international law… respect for the UN Charter depended on the degree of accommodation that member states would show in rejecting parochial short-sightedness in favour of a functional and universally respected international system.’ 

These points would seem to be as valid today as they were 30 years ago. If these developments come to pass, Australia should publicly and privately encourage a spotlight on China flouting the international justice system, just as it did in 1986 when the US did the same.

Photo: Getty Images/DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d


The race for UN secretary-general (SG) is heating up with a second round of interviews scheduled for 7 June and the recent nominations of Argentina’s Susana Malcorra and Slovakia’s Miroslav Lajcak, bringing the official candidate count to 11. The UN Security Council’s permanent five (P5) members remain the ultimate decision-maker on the SG’s selection, and although the P5 usually hold their cards close to their chest, rumours are swirling around the UN's Manhattan HQ that the UK was unimpressed by the initial crop of Eastern European candidates.

While commentators have thoroughly publicised the factors at play in the race related to gender and geography, there’s also a distinction to be made between UN insiders and UN outsiders, each bringing their own pros and cons. With the race still so up in the air, it’s worth taking a closer look at two candidates, one UN insider and one outsider, to see how their prospects are shaping up.

An insider – Irina Bokova (Bulgaria)

Bulgarian Irina Bokova brings considerable UN expertise to her campaign for SG, having served as Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) since 2009. Born in 1952, Bokova grew up in Sofia in a prominent and influential Communist family, which has raised some questions throughout her career. Bokova’s father edited the country’s leading Communist newspaper, and she was a member of the Communist Party as a young person, an affiliation she acknowledges but clarifies was out of necessity and not by choice. She told a reporter in 2009, 'All my life I have shown I supported the political transformation of my country. I have nothing to be ashamed of'. Like other children in the elite at the time, Bokova studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations where she earned an MA in 1976. She speaks English, French, Spanish, and Russian in addition to her native Bulgarian.

In 1977 Bokova joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where she served at its mission to the UN in New York and as a delegate to UN conferences on women’s rights. As a Member of Parliament (1990-1991 and 2001-2005), she promoted Bulgaria’s membership in the EU and NATO and participated in drafting its new constitution. Between MP stints, Bokova served as acting Foreign Minister, and afterwards she served concurrently as Ambassador to France, Monaco, and UNESCO (2005-2009).

As UNESCO chief, Bokova has garnered mixed reviews. Some have praised her energy and commitment to the organisation, where she has focused on advancing gender equality and education for all, while fighting racism, anti-Semitism, and violent extremism. Others have criticised her management skills and handling of UNESCO’s financial crisis (the organisation lost 22% of its budget in 2011 when the US withheld funding after UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member).

Bokova faced an uphill battle just to get the SG nomination. She received her country’s support from a Socialist administration back in 2014, but that government fell shortly thereafter, and the new administration reportedly preferred another Bulgarian; European Commission vice president Kristalina Georgieva. Georgieva ultimately withdrew her name from consideration, and Bokova got the nomination, but rumours persist about the possibility of Georgieva re-entering the race.

Some commentators have touted Bokova as an early favourite in the race, given her UN expertise and reported closeness to Moscow. Several recent developments, however, may be harming her candidacy.

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First, as an insider, UN observers had high expectations for her interview with the UN General Assembly, but some felt that her performance was disappointing and lacking in substance. I found it surprising, for example, that in response to a question about how she would strengthen the UN’s communication, she admitted that she had not thought about it.

Second, Bokova faces accusations that she improperly hired a Brazilian official to a senior-level post at UNESCO. The allegations were reportedly triggered by an investigation that Britain’s ambassador to UNESCO helped launch in 2015. Bokova’s spokesperson has denied the allegations, but some wonder whether London’s concerns about her judgment could damage her campaign.

An outsider – Vesna Pusić (Croatia)

On the other hand, Croatian Vesna Pusić brings a wide range of experiences to her candidacy but is a clear UN outsider. Embracing that role, she has vowed to eliminate UN jargon, joking, 'Half the time no one in their right mind can understand what these people are saying'.

Born in 1953, Pusić grew up in Zagreb in a family of intellectuals where she says political and cultural debates around the dinner table were the norm. A sociologist by training, she holds a BA (1976) in Sociology and Philosophy and a PhD (1984) in Sociology from the University of Zagreb. Pusić began her career in academia, working her way up from researcher to professor of sociology. She also became involved in social activism from a young age, co-founding the first feminist group in the former Yugoslavia while in her twenties and later directing a think tank focused on promoting peace in the region.

Pusić turned to politics in the early 2000s, first as a party leader and parliamentarian and then as first deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs. From 2007-2011 she headed Croatia’s national committee for monitoring the EU accession negotiations, and in an achievement she describes as one of her proudest, she oversaw the country’s accession to the EU in 2013. Pusić currently serves as deputy speaker of the Croatian Parliament. She received her SG nomination from the outgoing prime minister in Croatia, despite uncertainty over the incoming government’s position on her candidacy. Pusić has maintained a lower profile than some of the other candidates, and she is funding her own airline tickets and hotel rooms during the campaign.

Rather than dwelling on her lack of UN experience, Pusić is framing herself as a sort of 'conflict resolution insider'. She suggests that her experience living through war and peace in a country that has also both received and provided development assistance gives her a sense of understanding and empathy that is important at the UN. 'Maybe it’s too much to expect that a secretary-general can change countries,' she says, 'But it helps a great deal if she can understand and know how it feels when talking to people in a country, or confronting a situation in a country before or during a conflict.'

Most of Pusić’s statements during her interview with the UN General Assembly were fairly unremarkable; however, her presentation was punctuated by a handful of passionate, concrete appeals. In one of the bright moments, she asserted that she’s never seen an organisation or a person that isn’t flawed and that acknowledging an organisation’s problems is part of preparing to work with it. An outspoken advocate for gender equality and LGBT rights, Pusić eloquently stood her ground when Saudi Arabia cautioned her against imposing social values on others by noting that bringing contentious issues to the forefront doesn’t pose a threat but rather serves as 'food for thought'.

While Pusić is well respected in the diplomatic community, several commentators speculate that her pro-LGBT stance and generally pro-Western record may cost her support from Russia. She speaks English and German in addition to her native Croatian, but her lack of French may raise questions for Paris, which has traditionally insisted on an SG speaking French (though Ban Ki-moon’s struggles with the language suggest that France is backing away from this requirement). Regardless, one UN watcher says Pusić has even hinted that she doesn’t believe she’ll get the job.

Looking ahead

There is a case to be made both for a UN insider or an outsider to become the next SG. Former SG Kofi Annan — the only SG in history to be selected from the UN ranks — benefited from a deep understanding of the UN’s culture and inner workings, but his loyalty to the organisation and staff probably at times led him to turn a blind eye to their faults. As an outsider, current SG Ban Ki-moon has brought some fresh perspectives. However, he came into the job with an incomplete understanding of UN protocol and almost immediately ran afoul of member states when he introduced structural reforms without the customary consultations. 

Although Bokova and Pusić are arguably both qualified for the post, albeit in different ways, neither may ultimately ascend to the UN’s top spot. We’ll learn more about whether Bokova can overcome the criticisms levied towards her or whether Pusić can distinguish herself from the field by the end of July, when the Council is expected to start its private consultation process.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations

Election Interpreter 2016

Admittedly, it is crashingly boring for policy analysts to complain that their pet issue gets too little attention from our political leaders. But last night's leaders' debate was notable for the fact that the outside world barely intruded into the discussion. Apart from a brief segue on border protection (and perhaps you could argue that the entire 'boats' issue is a proxy for Australian anxieties about globalisation), and a passing mention of the Australia-China FTA, the only direct reference to how global affairs affects Australia was in Prime Minister Turnbull's introduction:

We live in remarkable times. An era unprecedented in human history where the pace and scale of economic change is pre-eminent and unprecedented. China 40 years ago, barely part of the global economy, now the world's largest single economy and our largest trading partner. Within a few years half of the world's middle class will be living to our north in East Asia.

We have seen the pace of change in technology as great businesses and great industries are overtaken by newcomers. These are times of enormous opportunity and uncertainty. These are times of great challenge. These are times when we need a clear economic plan to secure our future. To ensure that Australians remain a high wage, generous social welfare net, first-world economy. And I have that plan.

So why do the epochal events to our north — the once-in-a-century shift of global economic and strategic power from the Atlantic to the Pacific — have so little impact on Australia's domestic political debate? (Immodesty alert: the following three links are all to pieces I have written). One reason is that political leaders and policy specialists have a hard time articulating how this shift actually impacts Australians in their day-to-day lives.

Another reason is that it is hard for politicians to tell Australians that they ought to pay more attention to Asia, because it makes them sound condescending.

A third reason is rational ignorance: voters are busy, so they apportion their attention to things over which they have a direct influence. And for the vast majority, their level of influence over national policy extends no further than their vote, which means the likelihood that they can have any substantial impact on policy is tiny. And that's just in the domestic sphere, where politicians, elected by the voters, can implement laws which are then enforced by the state. When it comes to events beyond our shores, the influence any single voter yields is diluted still further, because those same politicians are working on a stage where they have no legislative power and few means of enforcement. The only tools they have to shift events are persuasion, influence and occasionally military force.

So it's natural that voters don't focus heavily on international events, and that our politicians follow their lead.

Photo: Mick Tsikas - Pool/Getty Images

The Brexit referendum

As 23 June, the date of the UK's upcoming referendum on EU membership, nears, the attendant debate has intensified and fractured into two broad camps.

Those that want to 'Leave' argue the UK would have a stronger economy, and retain more national sovereignty outside of the EU. Those in the 'Remain' camp say trade with the EU makes the UK much stronger economically, and its voice within the Union makes it much more politically important. Although many have chosen their respective side, the Institute of Directors (IoD) remains neutral in the discussion: 63% of IoD members wish to remain in the EU, but 50% think that the UK could be economically successful outside of it.

Much of the debate has focused on the economic implications of a possible Brexit, with the Leave side arguing that, although there would probably be a short-term negative shock, outside of the EU the UK would be best placed to strike trade deals with the rest of the world, notably the US, India, Australia and Canada (although some, like the US, have mentioned that the UK would be at the 'back of the queue'). They also argue that a Brexit would also reduce EU-inspired regulation and save the UK the roughly £150 million (the Vote Leave website inaccurately says £350 million) net contribution sent to Brussels every week in the form the UK's contribution to the EU Budget as a price of membership (the lowest of any EU member as a proportion of the economy). The Remain side has focused much more on the economic costs of Brexit, highlighting the negative forecasts from the IMF, the Bank of England (BoE), the UK's Treasury and the OECD, all of which say that in the short- and long-term, the UK will be economically worse off, albeit to differing degrees.

As ever, the future is a bit tricky to predict, and the Vote Leave campaign's seeming lack of a detailed plan about the UK's future relationship with the EU is not making it any easier: various relationships have been discussed and then rescinded, notably the Norwegian model (so-called fax machine diplomacy), the Swiss model (a series of bilateral trade agreements that require free movement of people, among other things), the Albanian model (which liberalises trade in goods but not services), and WTO membership (which would see tariffs and 'rules of origin' principles re-imposed).

This does not even factor in the EU side of the negotiations where there is potential for at least one of 27 member states to not be disposed to express kindness to a departing member. That being said, given the sheer number of arrangements, it is possible that a new 'British' model may be developed, although what this may look like is anyone's guess (especially if there is a new British government in the wake of the 23 June vote).

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The IoD will not be wading into the relationship prediction game, but we note that referendum-prompted uncertainty about the future has begun to filter into the UK's economy. The BoE recently revised down growth expectations and several recent statistical releases from the Office for National Statistics have shown how uncertainty has begun to feed into the economy.

Firms have begun to hold off on increasing future employment (vacancies shrank by 2.4% in the first three months of 2016, the largest fall since 2011), and businesses have stopped investments in further capital expansions: business investment decreased 1.1% in the last quarter of 2015 when the EU referendum was certain but its date was not. The manufacturing sector helps to highlight how uncertainty is affecting business decisions because its time horizons are longer and its sunk costs higher. When uncertainty prevails, manufacturing firms are usually the first to signal a slowdown. Output in the sector shrank by 1.9% in the first three months of 2016 compared to the year prior. 

At the moment, the UK's service sector, which makes up 80% of economic output and 83% of the labour force, remains stable. Employment grew by 64,000 over the past three months and wages increased by 1.9% over the same period last year. The percentage of part-time employees that want full-time work is near a post-crisis low of 14.3%, almost a quarter lower than its high of 18.4% a little over three years ago. The economy's stability is likely due to its labour market's flexibility. Firms can shed employment during downturns relatively easily, so it makes sense to maintain employment until a downturn is certain (rehiring and retraining new workers can get a bit pricey).

If, however, uncertainty spreads or a slump takes hold, the downturn could be quick and severe. Consumers have already started holding off on purchases of high-cost goods: prices of furniture fell by 2.5% compared to the month before (although they had grown by 1% on average over the past 10 months), major household appliances saw a fall of 2% after six months of continuous growth, and the purchases of new cars grew by 0.3% compared to an average growth rate of 1.6% over the previous eight months. The same pattern was seen during the build up to the 2015 general election.

The last three years of the economic recovery have been notably labour intensive which, although causing record high levels of employment and low levels of unemployment, has also led to lower investment in capital such as computers, both of which have dampened the UK's productivity and nominal wage growth. The latter has averaged under 2% growth over the past two years. Disposable income growth has been low, too, increasing at a quarterly average rate of 1.1% over the past 8 years, contributing to a saving rate below 4%. 

This should be coupled with the fact that two of the three main sectors of recent employment growth are counter-cyclical: restaurants and pubs and the creative industries have 4% more employees this year compared to last. These sectors tend to be volatile, not particularly well paying, and have predominantly young staff. If there is a downturn, they will likely be the first sectors to shed employment. This can have tricky consequences for individuals, particularly 'generation rent', the young who are usually the first to be let go during economic downturns. They tend to live in big cities like London, where asset bubbles and other factors have increased rent levels by large amounts but where high levels of employment have led to lower levels of wage growth and higher levels of debt. They might be the first to feel the pinch of prolonged uncertainty (if not already).

The UK's economic recovery, while strong, remains fragile. Employment is high, but wage growth is low. Personal debt is high, but employment is becoming more secure. Consumption remains high, but expensive purchases are being delayed. While the UK collectively holds its breath over the next month, the referendum has, it seems, already started to exert an effect. How this feeds into the eventual outcome remains (or is left) to be seen.

Photo by Leon Neal - WPA Pool/Getty Images


The Interpreter covered a lot this week — Brexit, India's space program, the 'Google' tax, international policing — but Saleem Javed's article on corruption in Afghanistan stood out for me. It is worth going back to the original article and to watch the video of the fairly remarkable scene between President Ashraf Ghani's security detail and some protestors at RUSI in London. Javed quotes some of the protesters below: 

'You are a liar. You lied to people of Afghanistan. And now you lie to the world.' Shouted Ahad Bahaduri from the audience while Ghani was speaking about his achievements. 'Listen to him but don't trust him' Bahaduri continued as he was forcefully removed from the event. 'One of Ghani's guards followed me outside to actually beat me but he was intercepted by a British security personnel in plain dress. The Afghan guard threatened me to death (in Dari). I am worried about my relatives back in Afghanistan now,' Ahad told me when interviewed by phone.

Susanne Schmeidl also wrote on Afghanistan, but on the American drone strike that killed the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansur:

If we have learned anything from Afghanistan's long history of war, nothing is ever so easy defeating an entire movement by killing a single leader. The battlefield has simply been too fluid for too long, and many of the groups have fought more or less independently for some time. Unless some of the underlying problems of poor governance, poverty, land ownership and poor economic prospects are addressed in Afghanistan, insurgency will continue to fester in Afghanistan.

An incredibly popular post this week was written by Greg Lopez on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's growing hold on political power in the country:

On the institutional front, two of the four members of the high powered investigation team into the 1MDB are no longer there. Najib sacked the Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail while the Bank Negara (Central Bank) governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz retired. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission Commissioner Abu Kassim Mohammed, appointed by the prime minister has not said much. The Inspector General of Police (IGP), Khalid Abu Bakar is the only top ranking civil servant from that high powered investigation still in favour with Najib.

Peter Cai was in Taiwan from the inauguration of President Tsai and wrote on her plans to make the country economically diverse:

On the innovation front, Taiwan has been and still is an innovative economy with a large and vibrant small and medium enterprise sector. During my trip to attend President Tsai's inauguration ceremony, I also went to see two such firms: Singtex, a fabric firm that makes cloth from used coffee beans and recycled plastic bottles, and Gogoro, an electric scooter company that makes stylish and environmentally friendly scooters.

The first entry in a five-part series, Jiyoung Song starts by laying out the  anthropological basis of migration:

Not everyone has the means to leave their homes, especially when there is no guarantee of success or even survival in a new place. The majority choose to stay. But, for many brave and adventurous people, migration has long been used as a means to survive or thrive. Since the movement of homo erectus out of Africa 1.75 million years ago, humans have been migrating to new locations due to climate change or food shortages. Migration is one of the most common evolutionary behaviours in the natural world.

David Wells on the security and counter-terrorism implications of Brexit:

Brexit would not deal the UK’s counter-terrorism relationships with the EU a fatal blow. But it would disrupt them at a time where Europe’s counter-terrorism agencies are under strain, and limit the UK’s ability to shape a Europe-wide counter-terrorism strategy in the years ahead. It is hard to see how Brexit would reduce the terrorist threat to the UK.

Derry Hogue also wrote on the growing debate about Brexit across Europe and in the UK itself:

In response, the Leave campaign is revving up its anti–immigration arguments as well as threats of worse crime, jobs lost and an increased terrorism threat. The other side is also upping the ante.

Britain Prime Minister David Cameron, foremost advocate for the Remain campaign, might not have the flair of Johnson, However there was a nod to the BoJo style when Cameron said Russian President Vladimir Putin and ISIS would welcome the UK leaving the EU.

What exactly do we mean when we say 'boots on the ground'? Rodger Shanahan thinks it's misunderstood:

The term 'boots on the ground' means many things to many people, including news media. The military (and most politicians) would consider the term to mean combat manoeuvre forces, implying one is decisively committed to the fight. The presence of advisers and enabling (or supporting) forces falls short of that measure, even though there are military personnel physically present in operational areas. The media struggle to understand the difference.

Darshana Baruah on India's maritime policy in the Indo-Pacific:

India is going to do what it thinks is necessary and that includes engaging and collaborating with regional navies and building a network of friends and partners. What India does not consider necessary is meeting another state’s expectations of what constitutes regional responsibility.

There may be limits on how Australia cooperates on international policing matters and our values advocacy, wrote John Hardy:

Although it is important to advocate Australia’s morals and values in the international community, seeking to making partnership with other nations contingent on those nations adhering to our value systems in their legal jurisdictions is problematic. We may agree in Australia that the specific case of the death penalty warrants special treatment in this regard, but an opposite example, where a partner country refused to honour its partnership agreements with us unless we applied their values in Australian legal cases might be instructive.

Also, Cameron Sumpter with a good piece about potentially using former members of ISIS to break the group's narrative:

Despite the severe moral code that ostensibly guides ISIS, psychotropic drugs are allegedly available in the caliphate. One Syrian defector who admitted to feeling scared on the battlefield said he was given a pill which made him feel 'indestructible and unbeatable', but then couldn't sleep for the following four days. 'Many of the ISIS members use this drug', he said. A Lebanese manufacturer of Captagon (an illegal amphetamine-based drug popular in the Middle East) told reporters last year that 'Everything daesh does is because of this pill'.

Mike Callaghan wrote on the 'Google Tax' in Australia:

Will Australia’s Google Tax be effective? Shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh has called it a joke, claiming that ‘putting aside their enforcement measures, the Coalition’s multilateral tax measures are budgeted to raise just $200 million…this falls well short of Labor’s multinational tax package’.  However, as Ross Gittins points out, the aim is not to raise tax at the DPT rate of 40% but encourage multinationals to pay tax at the standard 30% rate in the first place – the DPT will only catch the ‘slow learners’.

The US pursuit of ballistic missile defence, even in the face of Russia's concerns throughout the 2000s, has warped the debate, says Glenn Diesen:

The gradual expansion of missile defence capabilities is not a possible unintended development, but rather a planned approach of continuously upgrading the system as new technology and funding becomes available. The former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, explained in 2003: 'We have instead decided to develop and put in place a rudimentary system by 2004 . . . and then build on that foundation with increasingly effective capabilities as the technologies mature.' 

Emma Connors with her weekly wrap-up of the US election, this time on the GOP uniting behind Donald Trump:

In the beginning, there were 17 candidates vying for the Republican nomination. As the field thinned, speculation grew that a successful run by Donald Trump would rip the GOP asunder. And now? Republicans are falling into line behind Trump, memorably described by conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt as 'the unlikeliest, most unconventional nominee of a major party in modern times'.

An excellent, short and informative piece from Morris Jones on the space race (sorta) in Asia:

India seems to have been panicked by the tremendous strides achieved by the Chinese program. One reaction was a crash program to send a robot orbiter to Mars before China could achieve the same goal. The other has been the start of a human spaceflight program.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DFID.


Istanbul is a city living under the shadow of the war in neighbouring Syria. A bomb blast in the heart of the historic tourist centre earlier this year killed several people including foreign visitors, causing the tourist dollar, which many rely on, to evaporate. Locals allege the Assad regime was behind the terrorist attack in retaliation for Turkey's support for anti-Assad forces.

Locals claim an influx of Syrian refugees has undercut local wages, driving resentment and exacerbating economic malaise. Young men are drafted into military service to fight the separatist Kurdish PKK or hold the line on the border with Syria, and then released, embittered and psychologically scarred by the death of friends and family.

Against this troubled backdrop, 10,000 delegates descended for the World Humanitarian Summit earlier this week. The Summit (held, paradoxically, in a subterranean convention complex buffered by rings of police, secret service with helicopters overhead) aimed high, to climb lofty peaks. Where it landed though was somewhere in the foothills.

The question at the heart of the Summit was how to revitalise and restore a failing international humanitarian system. The answers to this big question were either negative or positive in proportion to the degree of expectation the participants invested.

The sheer scale of the Syrian refugee crisis and other complex disasters globally – 60 million people displaced, and rising, coupled with an inexorable rise in climate-induced disasters – means the aid response is woefully inadequate to meet the scale of need.

The humanitarian system, created at the end of World War II and comprising five or so large donors, a cluster of UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and half a dozen international non-government organisations (INGOs), is sclerotic. Increasingly professional and rarefied, with principles that are being openly flouted by states, it is unable to meet demand and apparently unable to reform itself. What is to be done?

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The common view at the Summit was treatment is required, but there was divergence on the cure.

Antono Donini from the Feinstein Institute, a guru and sometime stirrer, argued persuasively that there were no humanitarian solutions to the crisis because the causes were political and lay with states. The humanitarian system was a buffer to the failure of states, he argued. Looking to states to fix the problem was to look in vain: 'You cannot dismantle the master's house using the master's tools,' he intoned. Better to build coalitions and garner public support to force politicians to change, he claimed.

But change what, and where to begin? At this point, as conference participants dropped down from the paralysing macro analysis to the mezzo and micro solutions, presenting a bewildering array of fascinating ideas and initiatives, as well as compelling advocacy prescriptions. This was where the real richness of the humanitarian endeavour was to be found, and was the major success of the Summit.

'Localisation' was all the rage, with the Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR) being launched by 20 southern INGOs. Driven by a sense of disempowerment and injustice arising from decades of lousy engagements with the 'system' of donors and northern INGOs, who purport to support but override and bypass Southern actors, the network claimed they were not getting mad but hoping to get even. 'Don't give us more capacity building in humanitarian response standards, give us 10 percent overheads to build our organisations in the same way as INGOs have grown fat over decades,' they demanded.

Backed by Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, NEAR is exploring new funding instruments that allow pooled donor funding. Their powerful call to donors to work directly with the South left INGOs forlornly claiming they were local because 'all their staff were nationals', or rather more defensively arguing that it wasn't about North and South but the outcomes.

A variety of new 'instruments' were presented. Insurance policies being trialed by the World Food Program in Africa promised to have states divert some resources into preparation instead of putting all into response, by buying premiums against disasters such as drought. Insurance risk assessment would be better able to predict the local impact of incipient disasters, and pre-payments can be made to help authorities respond early before the disaster became a crisis. The point was made that states needed to pay premiums over years as opposed to one-offs, and the prospected of multilateral donors augmenting and building state contributions generated interest with Government delegates.

Of the Sustainable Development Goals however, there was nary a sighting. Reflecting the decades-old separation of humanitarianism from development, and a wariness about being expansive in embracing new agendas, my colleague captured the humanitarians' mood, opining 'there's a reason you build silos: it keeps the (humanitarian) grain in'.

Away from the engaging side seminars, the formal sessions ground on in traditional UN format: behind time, full of short, monotone statements by state leaders and other actors. The wordsmithing skills of the hardworking team of DFAT officials was on display as Australia's Minister for Development, Concetta Fierravanti Wells, set a record for how many initiatives one could commit to in the minutes allotted to her in the plenary session. Caught in caretaker mode by the Australian election, no cash promises were made.

The official solution to what ails the humanitarian system, offered by UN humanitarian head and former UK politician Stephen O'Brien, were 'commitments' where states and humanitarian actors such as INGOs would all publicly pledge to improve and reform. Hundreds of commitments were made and covered important areas such as disability, for example. But the fact remains, no adequate mechanism to monitor the promises made, let alone hold anybody to account, was agreed at the Summit.

The Holy Grail of all the commitments made was to be the 'Grand Bargain' whereby states would increase funding in return for greater efficiency and effectiveness by humanitarian responders in the UN and INGOs.

The Bargain was already looking challenged, however, by the much reported absence of heads of G7 states beyond Germany's Angela Merkel. The Grand Bargain's high-powered session, featuring UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, UK Development Minister Justine Greening and 10 others, was startling for its lack of Asian participants and only one eloquent African from the International Committee for the Red Cross. Underscoring the Euro-centric/Anglosphere love-in audience, question time was led by state members from Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden and others getting up to approve of the speakers' statements. If the Grand Bargain couldn't muster China, India or Indonesia to its plenary sales pitch, then it looks rather like the post-World-War-II humanitarian order will roll on, arthritis and all.

Except that it won't. Increasingly, it is being observed that new players like China, who delivered a huge but under-reported response to the earthquake in Nepal, will be responding on their own terms. What does this mean for the sanctity of 'humanitarian principles'? Well for Antonio Donini it marked the emergency of a 'pluri-versalist' humanitarian system: different folks, different strokes. Don't expect that new players are going to sign up to the old player's rules. A period of co-existence was predicted.

So at the end of the two days of the World Humanitarian Summit, I certainly feel more 'committed' to the humanitarian endeavour, alert to new ideas and improvements, and have immense respect for the ability of humanitarian responders. And the promise of a 'Grand Bargain' fixing the humanitarian system? Well, it is a bit like all advertising: caveat emptor.

Photo by Flickr user Pablo Cuneo.


The G7 countries of the US, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Canada have met for the 42nd time in Japan to discuss the biggest risks to global security and the world economy. Here is their 32-page official statement.

The G7 is an interesting grouping, often seen as outdated with its heavy European influence. How much do Italy's policies affect the world these days? The group has waxed and waned — occasionally the G8 when patching things up with Russia — and has become dwarfed by the G20 since it became a leader-level forum in 2008. The pessimistic view was that the latest G7 meeting would be 'unlikely to result in any significant agreement for coordinated action on the range of issues on the agenda'.

The G20 prides itself on being the 'premier forum for international economic cooperation' and making up 86% of the global economy as measured by GDP. The G7's strength has always been its grouping of 'like-minded' countries, a much more subjective criterion to measure. President Obama used his press conference speech to talk about the international order and G7 as a group of 'like-minded countries who are committed to democracy and free markets, and international law and international norms'. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, also brought up values – 'If we are to defend our common values, it is not enough these days to only believe in them. We also have to be ready to protect them.' 

Sheila Smith from the Council on Foreign Relations wrote a good overview of Japan's approach to the G7 and how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe 'would like to see the G7 reassert its role of global leadership'. It is not surprising therefore that China and Russia have been quick to heap scorn on the G7.

The tension between the G20 and G7 is even more acute this year given that Japan is hosting the G7 and China is hosting the G20. The Kremlin announced that Russia is more interested in cooperation with the G20 and China's Xinhua was keen to point out the domestic problems within G7 countries and blame Japan for bringing up the South China Sea.

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The G7 summit covered a lot of issues in two days: the global economy, trade agreements (Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), maritime security, counter-terrorism, refugees, extremism, the regime in North Korea, Russia's actions in Ukraine and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

On the global economy, nothing is likely to change. Tom Bernes from the Centre for International Governance Innovation notes that 'the G7 is not the forum where significant progress on bolstering economic growth should be expected. It is not the right membership as over half of global growth comes from the emerging markets which are not represented'. The G7 also has the same problem of the G20 in being unable to bridge differences over how to stimulate growth. When G7 Finance Ministers met, Japan wanted coordinated fiscal stimulus, but Germany stuck by structural reforms.

Even in the world of international summits, all politics is local. President Obama brought up Donald Trump and his 'ignorance of world affairs'. Just as in the G20 Finance Ministers' meetings in Shanghai earlier this year, Brexit came up. The G7 communiqué warns of the economic consequences of a Brexit. But it was Chancellor Angela Merkel who won the day with a demonstration of her hallmark Merkel-Raute

The G7 leaders were talking about all the right things. But the stability of the liberal world order is dependent on more than seven countries. Effective multilateralism needs everybody who matters at the table.

Photo courtesy of Twitter user @g7.