Some of the world's heaviest hitters are assembling in Sydney ahead of tonight's Lowy Institute Media Award announcement.

Yesterday, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Australia's Defence Minister David Johnston took the opportunity to gauge the rising global temperature with Lowy Institute stalwarts ahead of today's annual AUSMIN dialogue with Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.


US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel with Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove yesterday.

Unfortunately, Kerry and Hagel have a bit too much on their plates to attend tonight's announcement at the Lowy Institute's 19th century headquarters in Bligh St. For the Americans are here at a time when the Middle East is faced with the most dangerous cocktail of militancy and uncertainty anyone can remember, as Hagel told the ABC's 7.30 last night. The band of current and latent disaster stretches through Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Xinjiang and into the East and South China Seas.

Senior figures in the capitals of this hemisphere privately complain about a 'weak' White House that has emboldened barbaric extremists (and also Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping) to push the 'red lines' of American power. President Barack Obama stands accused of neglecting the 'pivot' to Asia that he famously put in motion while standing in Australia's Parliament House back in 2011.

Mr Obama has acknowledged the beginnings of a new and dangerous global disorder. 'I do believe that what we're seeing in the Middle East and parts of North Africa is an order that dates back to World War I starting to buckle,' Obama told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on Friday. In that interview and in a previous speech at West Point he forcefully defended the principles of non-action and reminded the world of what it was like, under his predecessor, to be hurled to the opposite extreme.

But it was only in an interview published last week in The Economist that he finally defined his approach to the country that matters most for this hemisphere:

One thing I will say about China, though, is you also have to be pretty firm with them, because they will push as hard as they can until they meet resistance. They're not sentimental, and they are not interested in abstractions. And so simple appeals to international norms are insufficient. There have to be mechanisms both to be tough with them when we think that they're breaching international norms, but also to show them the potential benefits over the long term. And what is true for China then becomes an analogy for many of the other emerging markets.

That, I would submit, is the most clear and clear-eyed formulation of a China policy that we've heard from a world leader in quite some time.

In his interview with Friedman, Obama also reminded us that there is one place – Indonesia, on our doorstep – 'where good news keeps coming'.

It is perhaps only a slight stretch to claim that Obama with his interview, and Kerry and Hagel with their presence in the country, are steering the global conversation towards tonight's event at the Lowy Institute, and towards the foreign correspondents who are brushing aside life-threatening dangers, evaporating budgets and salacious digital demands to show Australians what we need to know about our world.

'In a world where it is harder and harder to support foreign bureaus we are more convinced than ever that we need Australian reporters with Australian eyes and sensibilities looking at Australian interests,' says the Lowy Institute's executive director, Michael Fullilove.

Tonight a jury comprised of Amanda Vanstone, Chris Masters, Jane Hutcheon, Mark Ryan and Fullilove will name the journalist who has done more than any other to deepen the knowledge of international policy issues in Australia. The winner will be proclaimed by the former journalist and Minister for Communications (broadly defined), Malcolm Turnbull.

Some international policy subjects, however, are more difficult to report than others. 'We made a pledge in blood not to reveal the short list,' says Fullilove. 'At least, I probably shouldn't do it on our own Interpreter website.'