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.

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