Power, rules and camp followers

Jul 18, 2022
Anthony Albanese

Prime Minister Albanese’s understanding of the outside world does not match his undoubted ability domestically…The contest between China and the USA is not about values but about power.

He spouts the cliches of the previous government while making a commendable effort to move closer to Asia and the Pacific. Penny Wong has worked hard to improve our relations with those regions but does face obstacles not of her making. A biased and superficial Australian media does not help them. Echoing American demands for others to obey the rules based order shows a very naïve understanding of the issue. What are the rules and who breaks them?

“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton’s famous dictum has been updated in an interesting article by Ngaire Woods which appeared in Foreign Affairs. The article focuses on Putin but cites other examples like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan to argue generally that the powerful break the rules because they believe they can. Today, we see the USA holding forth about the importance of the rules based order while ignoring the fact that it is a major breaker of the rules. Australia trots along behind. We joined the USA in breaking the rules in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Chile.

While Australia’s basic outlook on how a society should be run is closer to the American than to the Chinese, the contest between China and the USA is not about values but about power. Both want to be the dominant power in our region and in the world. If, as seems likely, China will win should we be so obviously American camp followers or should we be more circumspect? Is it really in Australian interests to be so tied to one country that our armed forces cannot move without its permission and are so integrated with those of another country that it would be very hard for us not to go to war with that foreign country?

Albanese did well to visit Indonesia early but he has got caught up with our traditional Anglo friends in AUKUS and elsewhere. His trip to Europe was something of a curate’s egg. Restoring relations with France was a good thing in itself and as a tool for pushing along trade negotiations with the EC even if all he had to do was not be Scott Morrison. However, he was out of his depth with NATO and found himself getting involved in things of marginal interest to Australia when he should have been closer to home. Condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and support for Ukraine is completely right as is acceptance of some refugees but what is in it for us if we are the biggest donor outside of NATO? There are many equally deserving refugees in the world but they are not white European Christians. He may well have been thinking of domestic politics? Let others take the running in Europe. Urging Southeast Asian and Pacific countries to see China as a threat to be opposed does not go down well with countries who do not want to take sides in the US/China conflict. It simply confirms their view that Australia is an American deputy sheriff.

Albanese has made a serious effort in the Pacific but has had only limited success on climate change by setting a target lower than the others want. He shows his ignorance of the region by little things like pronouncing Kiribati wrongly. As Boris Johnson found out, little things can matter! Nevertheless, his attendance at the Pacific Forum was positive overall; he came across as someone interested and willing to become more engaged with the other members.

Jocelyn Chey and Geoff Raby have shown how his statements on China are little different from the Morrison Government and how the media shows an equal lack of understanding of the basics of diplomatic usage as well as of Chinese culture and language.

There are a number of clichés being pushed which should be dropped:

  • The medieval crusade against the infidels implied in democracies versus autocracies.
  • Describing the 14 points Chinese aide memoire as demands. It was not a demarche.
  • Criticising Chinese action in the southern islands while ignoring US/UK illegal occupation of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean or as it is better known ,Diego Garcia
  • Yapping on about the rules based order of which the USA is the main breaker.
  • Equating Taiwan with Ukraine.
  • Proudly proclaiming that Australia will stand up for its national interests as though that made us different. We should negotiate with other countries as they uphold their values and national interests too.
  • Australian politicians do not win elections through their knowledge of international relations and Albanese’s ignorance is understandable and hardly unique. He has had the misfortune to come to office at a time when he has had to act internationally before he was able to read himself in and to acquire advisers more in tune with ALP values and the new challenges he faces. His foreign minister has been able to acquire a better understanding of the world in opposition and in her life. He would be well advised to listen to her instead of Coalition left over wolf warriors. We can have sympathy for a decent man required to act in important matters that he has not previously been interested in. However, he now needs to immerse himself in this field with an open mind and perhaps bring new perspectives to a not so brave new world.

    Australia finds itself in a new and different world to which it must adapt. This will require deep and careful thought free of political cliches and past verities. We cannot assume that what worked in the past will still work in the future. The previous government failed to do this. In 1941 John Curtin turned from Britain to the United States in the face of a changed situation. In the face of a changed situation today, is it now time to consider turning from dependence on one country to a dependence on no single country

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