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Abbott's foreign policy flops


Aus PM with US State Secretary John Kerry

When Tony Abbott came to power a year ago, he promised a foreign policy of 'more Jakarta, less Geneva'. It was shorthand for greater emphasis on important bilateral relationships, less Rudd-ian emphasis on United Nations-centred grandstanding.

The reality has been almost the reverse: 'more NATO, less Jakarta'. This is essentially a foreign policy driven by militaristic multilateralism, tapping at the doors of the Western alliance power centres – Washington, London, Brussels (NATO headquarters) and Tokyo.

Australia now behaves as if it were a supplicant for NATO membership. Like the fragile post-Soviet East Europeans, we seem desperate to be allowed into that inner circle. We want to earn our colours with Aussie boots on the ground in Iraq, Syria and even Ukraine!

Since Richard Casey was External Affairs Minister in the 1950s, the three pillars of Australian foreign policy have been: a genuine reaching out to our Asian neighbours, adherence to UN-based multilateral values and institutions, and a firm but self-respecting defence partnership with the United States. All those pillars look pretty shaken now. 

This is a foreign policy based on aggressiveness: knee-jerk reactions to short-term crises with no evidence of depth, vision or overall strategy; a hierarchical approach of obsequiousness to presumed (NATO) betters and condescension to presumed (southeast Asian) inferiors. We are back to the era of 'Asia is somewhere you fly over on the way to Europe'.

There has been serious misbalancing in relations with Indonesia, China, Japan and India. We are told that relations with Indonesia are back to normal after a period of necessary firmness in turning back the boats. This is nonsense.

Indonesians now view Australia with wariness and suspicion, after Australia's arrogant behaviour both on-water and in relation to spying. Nobody in Jakarta believes that our Navy boats mistakenly trespassed in Indonesian waters in returning asylum-seeker boats and dumping orange lifeboats crammed with seasick returnees on their beaches. These were taken as deliberate signals that Fortress Australia will do whatever it takes to repel intruders.

Meanwhile, the apologies for eavesdropping on the former Indonesian president's family came late, grudging and heavily qualified. With newly elected president Jokowi there is correct exercise of protocol but no warmth. Much ground painfully built over 50 years has been lost.

China looks on Australia now as basically a country keen to join US and Japanese military efforts to contain their strategic rise. The harshly handled rejection of Huawei's telecom bid as a security risk; the effectively permanent expansion of a US military presence in Darwin; the overblown state welcome to the controversially hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the height of Chinese-Japanese border tensions; the flirtation now with the idea of buying Japanese-made submarines; the decision to sell uranium to India (China's rival and non-adherent to the non-proliferation treaty) – all send a message to China of a much less friendly Australia.  

Abbott has gone out of his way to insult and point fingers at Russia under Vladimir Putin. His involvement in the complex Ukraine civil war has been clumsy, one-sided and MH17-centred. This is not serious foreign policy, though it has played well in the Murdoch press.

The Prime Minister spoke of sending 500 armed Australian soldiers and police into Ukraine 'to defend the MH17 crash site'. While the Dutch and Malaysians were slow to digest the tragedy and move forward diplomatically in efforts to recover human remains and flight recorders from the conflict zone, Abbott's impatient rhetoric pushed the boundaries of courteous international discourse.

The first UN Security Council resolution on the MH17 tragedy was well handled, but I attribute most of the credit to the excellent staff work of the highly professional Australian UN Mission in drafting resolution language and canvassing widespread support. Ironically, the Security Council seat that Abbott in opposition had ridiculed as a useless Rudd vanity gave him his best theatre for diplomacy so far.

But multilateralism ends there for Abbott. Australia is jeopardising good multilateral practice both in climate change and refugee diplomacy. We are angering the UN High Commissioner for Refugees by abandoning the spirit and letter of the UN Refugee Convention.   

We, who were once world leaders in climate change diplomacy, are running away from global cooperation in decarbonisation and renewable energy. Like Canada, Australia now proceeds from short-term economic self-interest in mining and selling coal and other dirty hydrocarbons, and to hell with global warming and rising sea levels threatening poor nations. We're all right, Jack.

On the US alliance and its enemies, it is back to the kneejerk militarised diplomacy of 2001-2003. As John Howard was horrified by the 9/11attacks, so is Abbott horrified by Islamic State beheadings and eager to get our troops back into action in Iraq. He is impatient with parliamentary process and has successfully wrong-footed Labor into ticking the box without even the formality of parliamentary consideration.

And – to end on a note of near-farce – he couldn't resist putting a clumsy oar into the Scotland independence referendum, in words most offensive and inappropriate from a nation that owes so much to the Scottish contribution to our once-proudly independent stance on the world stage.


Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Poland.

Image of PM Abbott with State Secretary John Kerry Ukrainian by the US Department of State via Wikimedia Commons.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Tony Abbott, diplomacy, foreign policy, Australia, NATO



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Existing comments

Goodness gracious Mr Kevin. You couldn't really be serious. This article is meant to be humorous, right?

john frawley | 12 September 2014  

Any boxer worth his salt will pick fights only in his weight division. One would think that the PM with a university Blue in Boxing would realise there is little point in Australia trying to punch above its weight in international affairs. And while we're on sporting analogies: be careful about trying out for a Premier League club (NATO). The performance/contribution it expects might exhaust one's limited talent very quickly and very embarrassingly.

Uncle Pat | 12 September 2014  

Nice analysis, Kevin. Abbott has an amazingly naive arrogance to tell the Scots how they should think about independence from Britain, when it is absolutely none of his business. But what can you expect from a person so mired in Amero-Anglo-50s-centric thinking that he thought it was a great idea to bring back imperial honours (where there is no longer even an Empire). There was a great cartoon (I think here in Eureka Street a couple of weeks ago) depicting him as a small child in a library ignoring the collecitve wisdom of the ages section and camped in front of the "Boys-own Adventure" section. Think of what he's done in one year. Will this immature boy-man have stumbled us into a war before his term ends in another two years?

Paul | 12 September 2014  

Policy decisions are too important to be left to serving politician, who are too concerned about being re-elected, pushing their own myopic agenda, and gaining power and fame. We need a panel of distinguished Australians with a track record of integrity and wisdom, to promote policies for the betterment of each and all, for our country and the whole world.

Robert Liddy | 12 September 2014  

I am not surprise of the article above. It is what I expected from Tony Kevin. I get the right information from the correct side of journalists and commentators, so my blood pressure no longer goes up when I read Tony Kevin's articles.

Ron Cini | 12 September 2014  

Thank you, Kevin for the respectful mention of Abbott's clumsy and rude intervention in the Scottish referendum debate. But don't worry. The Yes vote increased after his saying the world would not be helped by an independent Scotland and we were not friends of justice and freedom which is the whole crux of our democratic and peaceful debate.

Duncan MacLaren | 12 September 2014  

Just who are the "right"and the "correct" journalists Ron? Surely not that fawning lot from Fairfax or that mincturating mob from that Murdoch organ?Thank you ES and Tony Kevin for voicing an opinion on the current foreign policy stance Tony Abbot is taking. He keeps telling us that he knows "what is good for our country" and his leadership will take Team Australia to the edge of the abyss and safely across to the other side.

Garry Evans | 13 September 2014  

Great Ron! Now tell us why.

Ginger Meggs | 14 September 2014  

Ron, like other commentators, I too am interested in whom you mean when you say "correct side of journalists and commentators". With respect, if you don't respond, we are justified in thinking the comment is off the cuff rhetoric without substance. I think Tony Kevin's article is spot-on. It is a serious matter when the Prime Minister of Australia behaves with ill-considered haste (and that's how it appears) and takes Australia into another Middle Eastern war. I admit IS is a rogue organisation and must be dealt with but it would seem to me, perhaps naively, that Iran and Saudi Arabia need to take a predominant role to curb IS excesses as both represent the two significant opposing factions in Iraq. Now, Mr Abbott has raised terror threat to high - raised to hype more likely. As for the Ukraine and Tony Abbott's bewildering offer, I am staggered that even the Murdoch media has not asked the obvious question: how would that be in Australia's national interest? His intervention in Scotland's referendum is embarrassing. He, "couldn't really be serious... meant to be humorous, right" John Frawley? I now hope for a vote 'yes'.

Name | 14 September 2014  

Tony, I totally endorse your comments .Two more years? I dread to think what other damage this Government can do to our image. As it is we almost never rate a mention in the overseas media anyway! ( I should know. I have spent time overseas!)

Gavin O'Brien | 15 September 2014  

I too would like to know to whom Ron is referring with "I get the right information from the correct side of journalists and commentators". Ron contributes to ES on such a regular basis that I assume he is referring to the many excellent writers and commentators here on Eureka Street.

Brett | 17 September 2014  

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