I have watched Australian Prime Minister Rudd's international trip with increasing concern along two quite different dimensions, international and domestic.
Internationally, Mr Rudd has been emphasising Australia's role as a middle power and seems determined to assert this in whatever forum he can. To my mind, there is a real danger that he will get what he wishes, a greater international role for Australia.
Domestically, the presence of an Australian media scrum travelling with Mr Rudd on a second aircraft has meant saturation coverage in the Australian media. Again to my mind, this is feeding what I perceive as Australian arrogance and insensitivity.
Mr Rudd is a foreign policy wonk, knowledgeable and expert. However, he is not Australia's foreign minister (who is that chap?) and has to balance a range of concerns beyond immediate foreign policy issues and the glamour of the international stage. I do not mean by this just domestic issues. Rather, I am thinking of the country's long term and potentially difficult strategic position.
At this point in time, Australia is a middle power and has been for a long time. Yet this simple description is misleading.
In our immediate region we are a super power and often behave with the arrogance of one. Like any big fish in a small pond, our view of our own importance is conditioned by our size relative to the tiddlers swimming around us. This carries across into our behaviour in the broader world.
We talk far too much and have an expectation that the rightness of our position should be self-evident. To some extent, this international stance is a reflection of a domestic arrogance in views, of a lack of humility and respect for others.
Australia is and will remain a middle power beyond our immediate region. However, like the US and for the same reasons, we are now at the peak of our relative power. Inexorably, Australia will slide down the global totem pole in terms of both population and economic rankings. I am not saying that we will not grow, just that others will grow more in absolute terms.
Our longer term strategic position is quite complicated.
The major allies that have formed the corner stones of our global relations - the US, UK and Europe, Japan - are all in relative decline in the face of the rise of China and India. We know this, but I am not sure that we have properly teased through all the implications so far as foreign policy is concerned.
In recent years, our trade policy has been far more sophisticated and longer term than our foreign policy.
Trade policy, and especially our attempts to create a network of trade agreements, directly reflects both our relative position as a small open economy and likely global economic outcomes over the next forty years. By contrast, foreign policy has been driven, perhaps inevitably, by shorter term considerations.
Both Mr Howard and Mr Rudd started their terms with foreign policy mistakes that indicate Australian insensitivity. In Mr Howard's case, it was the failure to recognise the importance of Indonesia and the Pacific. In Mr Rudd's case, it was Japan.
I found the Japan visit imbroglio quite remarkable. Consider this.
Japan has been a major ally and our dominant trading partner. This is a very proud country that feels threatened strategically and is trying as a country and people to adjust to relative decline, especially in the face of the rise of China. This is also a country that has come under sustained attack within Australia over whaling, with a domestic Australian view that we should use whatever means we can to stop the Japanese whaling program.
Upon election the Rudd Government downgraded relations with Japan in the context of the tripartite Japan/US/Australia agreement, while vigorously attacking the Japanese whaling program. The first reflected Mr Rudd's foreign policy views, the second played to a domestic audience.
Mr Rudd did not need to visit Japan on this trip. Further, the current instability in the Japanese Government created some visit problems. Yet Blind Freddy (to use an old Australian phrase) could have seen that the question of why Japan was not included would come up. Further, reporting to the Australian Government from the Embassy and other sources must have indicated Japanese domestic sensitivities.
All that Mr Rudd had to do in his response to the initial question to defuse the issue was to start his reply by talking about the importance of the Japanese relationship to Australia, long term friends and allies etc, then go on to say that he would be visiting Japan later. Full stop. Further question, just repeat the mantra. Instead, he created a diplomatic incident that left everybody scrambling to recover the situation.
Foreign policy wonks are technicians who should not be placed in the front, public, end of foreign policy. So far on this trip Mr Rudd appears to have damaged relations with Japan; cemented us as US Deputy Sheriff, salute and all; and ensured that we will play a role in NATO leading almost inevitably to greater military commitments.
With locked in media coverage, Mr Rudd's trip appears to have played well to a domestic audience, in part because it feeds to our sense of self-importance. I would feel far more comfortable if we were keeping our national head down, playing a quieter and more subtle game.