RICHARD BUTLER. 2018: La Commedia Continua?

Dec 27, 2017

Two new basic policy statements by Canberra and Washington offer no hope for a constructive engagement of either in finding multilateral solutions to major political and humanitarian problems.

Of the various lists published of the main international events of 2017, Brigid Delaney’s was sharp and had particular relevance to Australia, through its highlighting of the relationship between our Prime Minister and the President of the US. (The Guardian, 21st December, In the Year of the Covfefe, Turnbull managed to look more villainous than Trump)

It was in this context, that, towards the end of 2017, both the US and Australia published basic policy outlines: in our case, Foreign Policy; in the US’, a National Security Strategy (NSS). Both papers were the product of the professional advice available to the government and, as is customary, drafters had to reconcile what they knew to be the preferences of their political masters with their own judgment of evidence- based reality.

The two papers were well crafted, but they share two disturbing, dominant, characteristics.

First, there is a distinct absence of any serious affirmation of the importance of objective, legal, ethical or customary norms in the conduct of international relations. The references, particularly in the Australian paper, to the international “rules-based system” are rendered meaningless unless that system is understood to apply only to others, our putative enemies, not to us. Our policies are portrayed as consistent with that system. The policies of others are portrayed as violating it.

Ramesh Thakur has pointed out ( Pearls and Irritations, 15th December), that “all the examples of impermissible behavior cited in the document are to actions by Russia, Syria, North Korea and, China”. He rejects the claim made in the paper that it commits Australia to a  “norm based security order”, but instead rests on what he calls a “transactional approach to foreign policy”.

In the same vein, the US’ 2017 NSS paper, jettisons its two predecessors’ (2006 and 2015) commitment to such issues as: climate change, epidemics, building democratic societies; and, substitutes: defending the homeland, protecting American prosperity, “sustaining peace through strength”, and advancing US influence. There is no expressed support for the principles of law and conduct, to which there is universal consent, including most notably, to non-aggression and the peaceful settlement of diputes.

Secondly, in both papers, the neurotic need for an enemy is revealed, and some would say, a need for war itself. In both papers, the two prime, candidates for the status of entrenched enemy are; Russia and China. To give any objective credibility to this outlook, it is necessary to conflate competition between states with aggression.

The US NSS states: “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity”….. China and Russia “ are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence”.

The NSS does conflate competition by China and Russia with aggression and justifies this by proclaiming that Great Power competition went on the back-burner for about 30 years, but is now back with a vengeance. This is historicist nonsense. It is far more pertinent to observe that what the paper states about Chinese and Russian motives, modus operandi and goals, as cited above, could equally be applied to Trump’s doctrine and conduct under the policy of “America First”. In addition, it is more than hilarious, that competition in all things is extoled in American ideology as akin to life-blood, but apparently not allowed in the case of Chinese or Russian persons.

And, it is not an exaggeration to claim that what the US NSS paper states about Chinese and Russian manipulation of media, control of information, hacking etc., could also apply to the US, unless one is prepared to ignore the overt and covert actions of US intelligence Agencies, and the bias that so flagrantly occurs in a substantial range of US media. Trump calls it “fake news”, but only when he doesn’t like a particular report, and never when a report at issue, has been fabricated by him. Rupert Murdoch and Fox gives both the Chinese and Russians a run for the money in the propaganda stakes

The New York Times’ running list of Trump’s lies now records 103 instances of plain falsehood uttered by him in his first 10 months in office. The same figure for the whole 8 years of Obama as President was 18.

And how is America First doing? A survey by The Atlantic claims that the following are the current percentage levels of trust in Trump and the US, to “do the right thing”: in Australia 29, Japan 24, Canada 22, Britain 22, France 14, Germany 11.

In spite of these facts, which represent an extraordinary collapse in respect for and trust in US policy within important democracies, our own Government shows no sign of reviewing our attachment to the US and its policies. Indeed, the Australian Foreign Policy paper, speaks of the need for us to deepen those attachments.

The important question is how will these US and Australian policy stances be applied to the major issues which will need to be further addressed, immediately, in 2018?

These include:

  1. The two most shocking humanitarian crises: in Myanmar/Bangladesh, the 700,000 Rohingya refugees; and, in Yemen the 20 million facing a food emergency; some 7 million to die soon, and rampant Cholera.
  2. The future of Syria. This will be determined by, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Damascus, early in the New Year. US and Australian policy towards Syria has proven to be a costly failure. The same is likely to be true in Afghanistan, once again, as the so- called new US policies are implemented.
  3. The DPRK nuclear programme and, the continuation of the Iran nuclear agreement. Related to the latter is the increasingly serious power play in the Middle East involving Saudi Arabia, backed by the US and possibly Israel on one side and Iran, backed by Russia, on the other. Both the Korean and the Iranian nuclear programmes have major bearing on the overall nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Each of these problems would have a better chance of a solid and durable solution if the US were to be constructively engaged. The US’ current policy stance, does not suggest that this will occur. And, the personal conduct of Trump, such as was illustrated last week in his bullying threats to all other UN members on their vote on a UN resolution to uphold international law on the status of Jerusalem, offers no reason to hope for intelligent, rational, US participation in multilateral diplomacy.

La Commedia Continua, indeed, it seems poised to expand.

Richard Butler AC formerly Ambassador to the United Nations, Professor of International Affairs at NYU and Penn State University.

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