Saturday, April 05, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - foreign policy, Mr Rudd and the dangers of Australia's middle power status

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.


Anonymous said...


Several points of polite disagreement with your post - if you will allow:

1)My preference is always for a 'fp wonk' as you term them, over a polly with a 'thank God I don't have to face an election' mentality. I think it is to our unending discredit that ambassadorships seem to be regarded as rewards for minor pollys, and not given on merit to aforesaid wonks.

2)Rudd is still in what journalists call a honeymoon phase, so let him make his 'mistakes' with Japan or anyone else now - rather than two years down the track. I put quotes around 'mistakes' because really was it - re Japan? Your post acknowledges increasing importance/interdependence with China (and India will probably follow if we can just lose at cricket occasionally), so why should Japan in fact loom larger in our calculations? God knows the Americans display no loyalty to their deputies, so why should we with our erstwhile most important trading partner?

3) 'Middle power'. This term continues to amaze me with its arrogance, and disconnect with reality. Mumbai, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore etc would have much more pretention on some measures to this term. Australia is not and thankfully will never be a 'middle power'. We are and will remain a mine, and a tourist destination for those parts surrounding the mine.

Your last sentence I wholly agree with.

Good luck with saving the daylight tomorrow.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi KVD, and thanks for your good wishes re daylight saving. This will be a big night, at least in Sydney. Both daughters have gone out to take advantage of the extra hour. My wife and her mum have just started watching a movie for the same reason!

I will respond to your comments tomorrow when I am a little more with it.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning KVD. Just to continue my response to your comment.

I agree with you that Mr Rudd is allowed to make mistakes. However, I think that I would disentangle issues this way.

At the individual level I am suggesting that Mr Rudd's very expertise in foreign policy is a danger in that he is now in a new role and has to change. To use a business analogy, it is a bit like a McKinsey consultant with considerable technical expertise taking over a firm. Some are able to make the transition, others not.

I think that the Japanese imbroglio was simply un-necessary and showed a lack of sensitivity, a failure in process. At one level, a failure in manners. This holds regardless of the size of the country.

But Japan remains very important to Australia. It is, I think, still the second largest economy in the world and Australia's largest trading partner. The tensions between it and China can affect us. So in all this, Japan has the capacity to bite us quite hard.

This links to my next point, what I see as sometimes Australian arrogance and insensitivity. I have argued this one before. While I think that Australia is a middle power, I will discuss this in a moment, we also remain a relatively small player, especially in population terms. So a bit of humility is not a bad things.

By most standards, Australia is presently a middle power. We are, I think, somewhere around the sixth largest economy in the Asia-Pacific.

The US, Japan and China dominate in dollar terms. Then, with a biggish gap, comes Canada. Then, after another biggish gap comes Korea, India and Australia. There is then a very big gap to Taiwan.

So in economic terms, we are clearly a middle power in an Asian context, a very big power in our most immediate region. In force projection terms, our wealth and education and technical base mean that our armed forces, while small in absolute numbers, give us considerable military muscle.

All this said, my concern with the Government's overall approach, I say Government rather than just Mr Rudd because it is a Government position, with its emphasis on forcing people to recognise our position is that we may be too succesful for our own good.

Here I think that we are in agreement in the context of my last sentence.

Anonymous said...

Jim from kvd (again!)

Numbers and statistics are a curse in any discussion, and I apologise for persisting with this, but I am interested in your thoughts on the following.

I mostly agree with the numerical 'middleness' of Australia:

Population 49th of 207 noted countries; GDP 15th of 200-odd countries; Military spend 15th largest; Greenhouse per capita one of the highest; and so on. (These are mostly World Bank figures)

However, if Australia somehow ceased to exist, then the above measures (as absolute totals) would decrease by:

Population 0.31%; GDP 1.6%; Greenhouse under 3%; Military spend 1.46%

Therefore my gentle (and I hope polite) contention is that reference to our 'middle power' status is difficult to justify.

Your 'big fish in small pond' reference is absolutely correct; my comments are more directed to just what an insignificant puddle that 'small pond' is in overall terms.

Finally, I completely agree with you that a little more humility, and less arrogance would be a good start.

Jim Belshaw said...

KVD, the more you comment the better!

The way you present the numbers shows that we are a middle power at one level, while still being insignificant at another. Both need to be remembered.

Now track forward. Our significance at both levels will decline over the next few years.

Our proportion of global population and income will fall. Our share of military spend, at 15th ranking this is higher than I realised, is likely to decline as well. This one is less clear cut because we could maintain position by spending more of GDP on defence. For obvious reasons, I hope that this won't be necessary.

All of this does reinforce the need to talk softly, while also carrying a big stick if necessary.