Thursday 30 November 2006


John Howard’s declaration that history, hindsight and his visits this week to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, have provided no reason for him to review his views on the morality or strategic merit of the Vietnam War should shock Australians. Apart from the disastrous diplomatic implications of his position, these views put Howard at the most extreme edges of thinking on the war. The massive involvement of foreign forces in Vietnam caused untold death and destruction and prevented a local solution to the conflict. Just as important though, the extreme brutality of the war ensured that hard line leaders flourished in the victorious Communist north. Moderates and reformers were marginalised for years. Vietnam is moving on. John Howard isn't. We should be more than alarmed if the same strategic mind is guiding the war on terror and our presence in Iraq.

Published in the Australian Financial Review and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers.

Wednesday 22 November 2006


John Howard’s continual references to China as a reason for not signing Kyoto has finally drawn a response.

It is up there with John Howard’s greatest deceptions. Australia, we are told, has refused to sign on to the Kyoto protocol because it does not make demands of China or India in respect of emissions.

The Prime Minister neglects to advise Australians that we are, on a per capita basis, the worst greenhouse polluters on the planet. The average Australian is responsible for greenhouse emissions many times greater than that of the average Chinese or Indian.

It’s taken longer than one would have expected but the Chinese have finally had a gutful of this dodgy defense of Australia’s refusal to sign up to Kyoto. Last week, a Chinese delegate at the United Nations conference on climate change in Nairobi, took a swipe at Australia’s position pointing out that with a population 65 times that of Australia, China’s emissions would naturally exceed those of Australia. He also pointed out that greenhouse damage would be dramatically higher if China’s per capita output matched that of Australia.

There are two reasons why developing nations have been free of Kyoto’s targets to date. One is that on a per capita basis, developing nations are still massively behind the developed world in current emissions. The other reason is that serious greenhouse damage has been accumulating over the past century and industrialised nations have been the culprits. So developing nations are reasonably being given some latitude before being required to adhere to strict emissions targets. It won't stay that way of course and nobody has ever intended it should.

Economic prosperity will also ultimately be a facilitator of greenhouse emission reductions in the developing world.

Australia’s position on climate change is ugly not only because of our excessive per capita greenhouse gas emissions. We are also a major exporter of greenhouse inducing resources. So not only do we have an appalling per capita record on greenhouse emissions, we are also deriving significant economic benefit from other country’s addiction to greenhouse gas producing energy. We are simultaneously the world’s worst greenhouse junkies and dealers. Not a proud record.

Australians appear ready to take action to address this situation. Their efforts are obstructed by a Prime Minister who continues to deceive and reject joint international efforts on climate change. There are signs that even the Prime Minister is turning. He has for some months now been attempting to refashion himself as Mr Green. This week he also asserted the right of the Chinese to pollute at liberty clearly feeling uneasy about their earlier rebuke. Fortunately for the world, the Chinese are taking a more proactive and multilateral position on climate change than Australia. Shame.

Monday 20 November 2006


The collapse of the neo conservative foreign policy project in the US will create some serious challenges for its most vocal international supporter, John Howard's Australian government.

''I believe in talking to your enemies,'' “it's not appeasement to talk to your enemies.'' And so with these simple words uttered in early October, former US Secretary of State and Republican elder statesman, James A. Baker III dispatched 6 years of neo conservative dominated US foreign policy.

Bush’s neo conservatives have been on the back foot since the Iraq War started going pear shaped. Condeleeza Rice has done her best to add some nuance to US diplomacy since becoming Secretary of State. Baker’s comments added further pressure. The Democratic congressional triumph last week, Donald Rumsfeld’s departure from the Pentagon and the appointment of Robert Gates as Defense Secretary will together, spell the definitive end of the radical foreign policy experiment of Bush and his band of neoconservatives.

Critics have been raging against the Bush administration’s foreign policy for a long time. Many of the critics have been Republicans. Baker was the most senior Republican insider to voice such an unequivocal refutation of the black and white world of “you’re with us you’re against us” and the “Axis of Evil”. The Bush world view, flushed of all complexity, has been a party to the most thorough breakdown in international affairs since the end of the Cold War - the Iraq fiasco, increased North Korean and Iranian belligerence, intractable violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories and a marginalization of moderates across the world’s toughest trouble spots.

John Howard and Alexander Downer have made Australia the world’s most visible and vigorous advocate of the Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld view. Now that this view is being turned on its head in the US, where does it leave Australia? Looking as silly, weak and obsequious as we have looked throughout the past six years? Worse.

Throwing in our lot with the neo cons without reservations, conditions or doubts was always a reckless choice for Australia. The US is big and powerful enough to change course and the world must adapt. Not so Australia. No, we need to carve out our own space using very careful measures of idealism, realism and self-interest. The Howard and Downer Doctrine, also known as the “Doctrine of Holding On Tight to the Bush Banana” (thanks to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder for the Bush banana line) does not meet any of these criteria. Instead, Howard and Downer have pursued a foreign policy that checks out the biggest guy in the room, makes sure he’s an acceptable cultural match (the United States) and then jumps aboard the policy train without question and with scant reference to Australia’s complex position in the global political schema.

The biggest problem with the current complexion of international politics is that while the US remains the biggest guy in the room, there are an increasing number of other reasonably hefty fellows (China, India, Russia, Brazil) making their presence felt as well. And while the US will remain the biggest guy in the room for a generation, even the best US policies will see its relative importance shrink dramatically in our lifetime.

Perhaps more important though, regionally, Australia will also find our ASEAN neighbours more economically and militarily robust over the coming decade. If our policy framework is simply a pale version of US policy, we will not be well placed at all to deal with our increasingly strong and demanding neighbours. Predictable areas of disagreement in Indonesia and Malaysia will be Australia’s approach to Middle East and Islamic issues. Australia’s role in the Iraq War and the wider war on terror have already damaged our standing with our Islamic near neighbours. Our blind loyalty to US positions on Israel will also have been noted.

As militant Islamists seek to assert themselves in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, Australia needs to frame policy that does not play into extremist hands. Our support of the Iraq debacle, the neoconservative foreign policy position and our uncritical support of anything out of Israel, plays very badly in our region. Any regional growth in Islamic militancy is very very bad for Australia. Yet the Howard government has pursued policies that play into the hands of Islamists.

Australia’s positions on these issues may have met the most crude and highly dubious realist measures - a view that the US is the most powerful nation so an alliance provides reflected security, strength and comfort. This view also offers the Howard government continuity with Australia’s long standing US alliance. It plays well with the electorate. It shows zero leadership however. A real leader would be preparing Australians for a foreign policy environment that is far more complex and where the US alliance alone will not suffice.

The Howard government has firmly established a view of Australia in the region and the world as a nation totally entranced by extreme US power and ready to cross any ideological and policy bridge to accommodate the wishes of that power. Nobody should respect us for that. Watching Howard redefine core and non core foreign policy positions (eg. David Hicks, global warming) is already proving fascinating.

Tuesday 14 November 2006


October 5 2006

Australia's values debate looks increasingly insular, anal and of a diminutive nation from afar

John Howard and Kim Beazley have been trying to out muscle one another recently on Australian values and immigration. I have not heard a clear definition of what these values are. I have heard welcome references to fairness, tolerance, respect for women and compassion from leaders pushing the “values” barrow. These seem like pretty reasonable things of us to demand of our intending migrants. So why am I so repelled by the discussion?

There are a number of reasons.

The first is the notion that these are Australian values? They are without doubt some of the finest of human values and they are to be found in all cultures to varying degrees. The notion that these values are uniquely Australian is absurd and points to an increasingly delusional and inward looking political culture confused about the nation and its role in the world.

Secondly, how successfully do we as a nation practice these “Australian” values? John Howard has presided over the most dramatic abandonment of values of fairness, decency and compassion of any political leader of my lifetime. A values test might prevent “valueless” outsiders coming in, but what can we do with those already here in our Anglo community that do not meet these standards – e.g PM Howard, Minister Ruddock et. al.

And here in India, it all looks so damned irrelevant to the real challenges facing Australia. No matter what your position on migrants and their English language skills, Australia’s status as a mono-lingual nation is a disaster for our future. Those that peddle some fanciful insular mono-cultural, mono-lingual view of Australia condemn the next generation to an ever diminished role in an international community where the Chinese, Indians, Russians and Brazilians rub shoulders with our traditional US and European cultural companions. Australia is less prepared by the day for a role in the not too distant future. The manner in which our leaders on both sides of the political divide conduct the debate drags Australia in a regressive direction that is immensely damaging to our future.