Quick shift required in foreign policy


'First challenge: the world', by Chris Johnston Kevin Rudd takes office at a dangerous but exciting moment of fundamental challenges to the traditional national sovereignty-based international agenda.

Foreign policy is about prioritisation of effort, assigning scarce Australian policy-making and diplomatic-practice resources to the highest priority needs. Three urgent issues require deft and speedy footwork by the new Labor government to bring Australian foreign policy into line with reality, after 12 years of misdirection under John Howard.

First, the scientific consensus on damaging climate change is at last being recognised by the international political community. The UN Secretary-General is rightly warning that December's Bali review meeting on the Kyoto treaty must be a defining moment for real global action by governments.

No less important, we now approach — or may have passed — the world's peak oil supply. The effects of this realisation on world energy markets will be progressively, dramatically destabilising, even within Rudd's first term and certainly in his second.

Third, there is the present danger of George Bush irrationally launching US air warfare on Iran. Old certainties and comfortable assumptions in Australian foreign policy are gone. Our great and powerful friend is no longer the steady pair of hands it used to be. There is a reckless mood afoot in parts of Bush's administration, from which Australia needs clearly to detach itself if we are not to be sucked into another Iraq-invasion style disaster.

Fortunately, our change of government will of itself increase diplomatic distance between Canberra and Washington. Rudd could emulate Gordon Brown in signalling, on acceding to power in London, that the cosy Bush-Blair personal relationship was over. Brown insisted on his first visit to the US that the leaders meet formally in suits, not in shirtsleeves at the ranch.

Rudd should not follow the naïve course of incoming French President Sarkosy in trying to ingratiate himself with the Bush Administration in its final dangerous year. The immediate focus of Australian policy towards the Bush administration should be to work with sensible like-minded UN member countries, certainly the UK and Germany but also more controversially China and Russia, in dissuading any US unilateral air strikes against Iran.

This would be a delicate new diplomacy, moving away from Australia's mindless camp-followership of the past 12 years. It will require Rudd's close personal attention to convey the true messages — that Australia is acting as a good US friend and ally, as well as a responsible international citizen.

The fact is that any unilateral US air strike on Iran, however it were spin-doctored, would be a disaster for global security. The time for Australia to join in responsible international dissuasion of such brinkmanship is now, not later.

Similarly with Kyoto, there is urgent repair work to be done. Labor must use Bali to register the fact of real policy rethinking in Australia. It would send an appropriate signal for Rudd to lead the Australian delegation to Bali, and to apologise for Australia's past bad faith in negotiating Kyoto, in first pressing for watered-down Australian commitments, then reneging on joining the treaty. The statistics of Australia's per capita CO2 emissions are now so damning that it will take a dramatic new public diplomacy to repair Australia's badly tarnished international reputation.

On peak oil, Australia is, like the rest of the world, at the mercy of iron laws of supply and demand in international energy markets. Peak oil's market impact will drive oil prices sharply upwards. This will fuel inflationary pressure in the global and therefore Australian economy.

This emphasises the urgent need for rapid reforms in Australian energy production and exports, to encourage the fastest affordable transition to a renewable energy-based economy. Australia's domestic and international energy policies will need to be mutually consistent and supportive. These are uncharted waters for Australian foreign policy. Ross Garnaut needs to offer Rudd interim policy guidance, now.

These three challenges — climate change, peak oil and US-Iran — actually manifest the same underlying challenge to Australia's traditional foreign policy vision. How can Australia move from our historic narrow concept of national interest, which has over-emphasised US bilateralism in international security and the obsessive pursuit of maximum resources-export dollars? How do we recover the larger vision, that both Whitlam and Evans pursued, of Australia as an active good international citizen, from which true national security flows?

Will Australia 'hang together' with the world community, or will we 'hang separately' with a self-centred and internationally irresponsible US? Will Rudd's Australia work towards a cooperating world that plans together to meet the huge shared challenges of global warming and non-renewable energy supply depletion, or will we take part in decay towards an anarchic Mad Max world of battle over depleting resources of water, arable land and fossil fuels?

These are not challenges on which the Rudd government can determine good policy balances overnight. They will require a serious longer-term national policy planning effort over several years. But the policy signalling must start now. A proper scepticism towards a great deal of what passed for 'consensus' in Australian foreign policy under John Howard is called for.

In sum, both the Bali Kyoto meeting and the Iran war risk scenario require immediate foreign policy attention. The new Rudd administration cannot afford to let itself be positioned in a similar public frame as its predecessor. It needs to signal real policy shifts. This needs Rudd's personal involvement, to get the balances right and to set directions for future work.

Foreign policy was a sleeper issue in the election. It cannot remain so now.

Tony KevinTony Kevin was a career diplomat for 30 years 1968-98 and was Australia's ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He led DFAT's Policy Planning Branch from 1986 to 1990.



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Existing comments

I find this article clunky and obvious. Phrases such as "mindless camp-followership of the past 12 years" - is the author suggesting that Australia as a nation is camp? Or that Australia as a nation has in the US camp?

And telling people who read Eureka Street that "Peak oil's market impact will drive oil prices sharply upwards." is almost insulting. I would guess that most people know the price of oil is going to continue to rise.

Finally, the comment near the start "the scientific consensus on damaging climate change is at last being recognised by the international political community." is again confusing. The VAST majority of the international community has recognised the risk of climate change.
If Mr Kevin means that George Bush and Australia have realised the risk, he should say so. If he means that China is starting to turn its mind to the challenge, he should say so.
In summmary, this article is long on narrative and short on analysis - and it suffers for it.
I look forward to seeing if you publish this negative comment.
Peter | 29 November 2007

I don't agree with the previous comment at all. I think Kevin sets out in a lucid and clear fashion three immediate challenges for the Rudd government. Good article.
James | 29 November 2007

I agree with Peter that my three short-term priorities for Rudd in foreign policy are rather obvious. The most urgent foreign policy problems usually are. But this doesn’t make it easy to get the settings right. Don Rothwell has already signalled difficulties for Australia signing Kyoto before enabling domestic legislation is passed. Withdrawing troops from Iraq, and registering with Washington that we would oppose a unilateral US attack on Iran, will require delicate alliance management to minimise costs to bilateral defence and intelligence ties. On oil prices, national economic policy will need highest-quality economic intelligence and forecasting on factors that will influence oil price fluctuations.

It is noteworthy that the international political community has at last recognised the scientific consensus on climate change. The latest report of the International Panel on Climate Change captured government policymakers’ attention around the world. Climate change has moved to the centre of the UN’s international security. The challenge at Bali will be to use this upsurge in international political concern to achieve real outcomes.
tonykevin | 30 November 2007

I’m surprised that Peter takes issue with Tony’s description of Australia’s diplomatic approach during the Howard years. I would have thought most people would know what a ‘camp-follower’ was, and it is neither of Peter’s suggestions. And while the derivative ‘camp-followership’ might be a clumsy, even ‘clunky’, word, its meaning is surely quite clear, that is that Australian foreign policy over the last 12 years has simply been one of mindlessly following the United States in whatever it says or does, right or wrong.

I also suggest Peter’s criticism of Tony’s statement of the effect of ‘peak oil’ on oil prices is a little superficial. Tony said much more than that ‘the price of oil is going to continue to rise’ when he said that ‘peak oil’s market impact will drive oil prices sharply upward’. ‘Sharply’ is clearly the operative word, and Peter seems not to have noticed that.

Finally, Peter concludes by questioning whether Eureka Street will publish his negative comment. Clearly, he doesn’t know Eureka Street or the tradition from which it sprung.
Warwick | 04 December 2007

Interesting to see how quickly Rudd has signed on to Kyoto - I wonder how practical it will be for Australia to meet its targets.
james | 05 December 2007

Rudd has already ratified Kyoto so we can hang with the rest of the world and cut Dubya off at the knees. He has already contacted the US to get combat soldiers out of Iraq and those two things constitute more than Howard did in 12 years. He has also put left wing people in all the key portfolios for social program delivery and that is also a good start.
Marilyn Shepherd | 05 December 2007

James' concern about the practicality of Australia meeting our greenhouse target is answered not as reassurance but as a wake-up call. If Australia cannot constrain itself to 8% increase from baseline greenhouse emissions, what hope can we have that the world as a whole can turn global warming around?

The main advantages of our ratifying Kyoto are: We can again be taken seriously in international efforts to reduce global warming; We are no longer turning our back on our Pacific neighbours who are worried about the ongoing existence of their sea-level nations as sea levels rise; Australian environmental experts are again able to work internationally, and contribute in a practical way to reducing emissions and mitigating some of the already existent global warming effects.
Ian | 06 December 2007

James (4 December 2007) asks how practical it will be for Australia to meet its targets. Answers to James’s question are already written.

Mark Diesendorf has already answered this question (“Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy”, UNSW Press, 2007, ISBN9780868409733).

McKinsey & Co have produced a February 2008 report “an Australian Cost Curve for Greenhouse Gas Reductions”. That is, it is wholly practical for Australia to meet its targets. To not meet its targets, Australia would have to deliberately choose to fail, would have to choose to continue the bloody-minded path of its last 11 years.
David Arthur | 12 April 2008


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