Abbott needs a lesson in real politik, fast


It’s been quite something to watch the Abbott Government’s international forays in its early months. I can’t recall a new Government being so internationally oriented in its early days, a good thing in principle. Upon his election, Prime Minister Abbott immediately toured south east Asia, aiming to deliver on his “stop the boats” election commitments. Andrew Robb has also been very active in pursuit of free trade agreements, especially with China. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been active in the US and our climate delegations have been attending negotiations in Poland. Even at home the new Government is pre-occupied with international engagement issues with big decisions on foreign takeovers of local firms pending.

Some of this is simply the timing of international meetings and it shows as well that Australia is not an island in a global economy. But it illustrates something else about the new Government too. The Abbott regime is determined to pursue its agenda to the four corners of the earth, whether that be climate change, people smuggling, trade or anything else. Again, reassuring in principle.

But there is another pattern developing and it is less comforting.

In all of its international engagements, the Abbott Government is operating under the broadly disseminated term the “national interest”. It was one of John Howard’s most oft-used and politically impressive rubrics as well. But under Howard it had clearly defined parameters of supporting the US alliance, of ignoring and often disparaging any institutions of “global government” and of being open to international business. As a doctrine it had historic ballast and was supported by the times. The problem is, I’m not sure what the new Government means by it and I am quite sure that the times demand something more nuanced.

The phrase the “national interest” evokes a body a of thought in  international relations known as “realism”. It’s most famous champion is the US diplomat George Kennan and most notorious practitioner is Henry Kissinger. In more contemporary times it is associated with the always impressive Owen Harries, one of Australia’s most significant intellectual exports to the US as the founding editor of the US journal “The National Interest”.

Put simply, as a guiding principle in international relations, realism is to operate in a state of perpetual distrust of one’s neighbors. It eschews values and pursues naked self-interest for the nation lest the temptations of empire overstretch power. A prime example was George Bush senior’s first Iraqi invasion and withdrawal, leaving the tyrant in place to torment his people but leaving the US with a limited bill, cheaper oil and a suppressed strategic threat. Compare this with George Bush junior’s second Iraq invasion, which left the US with paralysing debts, an exhausted military in a quagmire, promoted a new strategic threat in Iran and you get some idea of the value of “realism”.

The primary alternative frame of reference in international relations is “internationalism”. It is a doctrine that holds that national self-interest is advanced more through cooperation than it is contest. Bill Clinton is more an example of this school of thought with his efforts to defuse various global conflicts multi-laterally. For better or worse, using institutions like NATO and UN Security Council to rally coalitions for action. It too had its hard-nosed successes, most notably in the former Yugoslavia, a war which was probably shortened by NATO intervention, even if it was atrocious first.

There are other schools of course, most prominently the neo-conservatives that invaded Iraq a second time in a weird fusion of “coalitions of the willing” and delusional ideas of democratic dominoes etc. But the polarities between which most international relations thought is suspended remains “realism” versus “internationalism”

In the local context these polarities operate somewhat differently. Australia is not a super power. On most measures it’s barely a middle power and it’s influence is shrinking relative as demographically much larger nations embrace liberalisation and their economies catch up. A such Australia has a tradition of operating further towards the “internationlist” end of the spectrum. With some differences, especially during the Cold War, this has been bipartisan for decades, though it was ruptured somewhat by John Howard as he privileged US relations during the War on Terror.

The logic behind Australia’s greater orientation towards internationalism is itself somewhat realist. As a small to middling power, it serves our strategic interests to enmesh larger powers in a net relations. Giving free reign to rule by the biggest stick doesn’t make much sense when you possess a twig.

So where does the Abbott Government see itself on this spectrum?

The government is too young to know. We haven’t had any major foreign policy speeches laying it out. I’m not sure it would know if you asked it. What we appear to have is a series of election-winning promises in action, “stop the boats”, “open for business” – slogans if you will – that are being pursued piecemeal, with stakeholders loudly proclaiming their needs but no overall narrative guiding decision-making.

The latest debacle with Indonesia is another example. Tony Abbott has swung from seeking to elevate the Indonesian relationship to condemning it with no apparent thought towards what it means strategically. The Abbott Government was not responsible for the spying and was unlucky it hit so early in its tenure but had the PM genuinely thought of Indonesian engagement as a strategic priority, within a larger framework of realist internationalism, he’d have quickly responded with sympathy when the spy scandal broke (apologising if need be) and then go on with business as usual.

By not doing so, he now has even conservative commentators suggesting he must make real concessions to prevent disaster. From Paul Kelly over the weekend:

THE onus now resides with Tony Abbott to demonstrate a flexible and new approach to intelligence and security issues by offering concessions when he replies to the letter from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Nothing else will suffice. The key to the Prime Minister’s reply must be the recognition that this is not just an intelligence crisis with Indonesia. It is a political crisis. It must be treated as a political crisis. That dictates against the mere “neither confirm nor deny” stance, plus regrets taken by Abbott, because this position cannot satisfy the political pressures now unleashed.

Make no mistake, Kelly’s suggestion is far more radical than would have been an apology to Jakarta. He is arguing that we should dismantle or at least inhibit our Indonesian espionage capability in order to re-engage our neighbour. But Australia is the eyes and ears of the “five eyes” – US, UK, Canada and New Zealand – in south east Asia and to do so will materially downgrade our usefulness in that partnership. Yet if it doesn’t do it, losing Indonesian support on people smuggling, on counter-terrorism, on Australian integration with broader Asian political blocks, will be very serious.

In short, Australia has stumbled into a pivot point in its Asian engagement and appears unprepared to face it.

Houses and Holes


  1. “dismantle or inhibit our Indonesian espionage capability in order”

    This would be totally stupid, Indonesia is not Germany by any stretch of imagination, is too close for comfort, has an extremely well equipped army, with an important fringe of its huge population that is less than enamored with Australia.It s fair that this country be on close surveillance, any less would be foolish.

    More apologies would look weak without much benefits.So far Abbott is doing well.

    • It’s too late to apologise. Now only material concessions will do it. If they;re not forthcoming, Indo cuts us free regionally.

      Abbott has badly damaged the national interest whichever way you look at it.

      You should try reading the post for something new.

      • Not looking weak for no reason is not damaging the national interest, on contrary.

        I think they did quite well, smugglers did profit handsomely from labor weakness, this has stopped.They did protect Australia interest in Warsaw.

        They should have a stronger, more transparent framework, that s sure, but “realism” awfully looks like “bend over” for some.

        • The boat are still coming. The government may have stopped the information, and the Daily Telegraph have stopped reporting on them, but the boats are still coming.

        • Paying along with placating their anger is not weakness. Cutting back our espionage is. As is losing Indonesian support in the region.

          You aren’t reading what I’ve written, Dam. You’d rather look tough than be tough.

          In international relations there is a technical term for that: bloody stupid.

          • There is no way to apologize without cutting back our spying, which is a no-no considering the risk Indonesia poses.Hence the calls to apologize / acknowledging their fake anger are nonsense.

            Bending over never did anyone any good in diplomacy, even if you re not tough, looking tough pays.

            spying is normal, noone seriously care.

          • You’re right spying is normal and that they don’t really care. But the responses to the spying have turned this into something much more than spying – it has enflamed the situation and made it about saving face. And when it comes to saving face in politics – *everyone* seriously cares.

            Thus Abbott has forced a lose-lose situation, we either lose their support in the region or we lose our intelligence.

            How you could defend such a stupid act I don’t know. But I’d bet my life if team red did this instead of team blue you’d be up in arms louder than any of us..

          • that s why the only course of action in term of intelligence is to shut the fuck up.

            Everyone (especially in the gov) should stop talking about it and the issue will go away as they always do in this short term oriented world, even the few idiots in Indonesia who are trying to stir the shit will get tired.

      • Abbott wasn’t PM when the spying happened.

        The spying row will blow over and Abbott is following the diplomatic playbook on this to the letter: confirm or deny nothing but tell Indonesia they are our friends.

        Indonesia’s outrage is part of their presidential politics, with an election next year.

        Australia and Indonesia will always be spying on each other. There is a great cultural and religious divide between us, which means we don’t trust each other.

        Have a read of Samuel Huntingdon’s “The clash of civilizations”

    • That and the fact that more than 300,000 Australians visit Bali every year…maintaining capability to monitor where possible terrorist threat would seem sensible.

      I reluctantly find myself agreeing with Lorax – Kelly has lost the plot – at least on this one.

      • Huh? What are we agreeing on? That Paul Kelly has degenerated from a high quality journalist (during the Hawke-Keating years) into a mouthpiece for the conservative side of politics, and today is almost indistinguishable from Gerard Henderson?

  2. “..In short, Australia has stumbled into a pivot point in its Asian engagement and appears unprepared to face it…”

    Yep, that is about right.

    Is anyone suggesting that the choice is between tapping the phones of the Indonesian President and stopping all intelligence or information gathering in the relationship with Indonesia?

    Abbott – or perhaps more importantly his advisors – political and diplomatic – have simply demonstrated a tin ear.

    They misjudged the significance of the disclosure and then misjudged their responses.

    However, that ‘tin ear’ appears to be a national limitation judging from much of the Australian commentary.

    The only thing surprising is that the Indonesian govt hasn’t said ‘screw you’ more emphatically – as their daily newspapers are doing.

    I suppose this is what happens when you spend decades ignoring 250+M people living next door and then join Alfred Hitchock’s 5 investigators ‘leaky sieve’ spy club to keep an eye on them.

  3. I would argue that Australia’s decision to focus on Asia politically is itself a decision made in the national interest. I don’t think Australia sees itself strengthening interdependent ties with its Asian neighbors beyond specific policy goals (trade, security)and trying to assert Australia’s political influence in the region. By becoming one of the leaders within Asia, Australia’s power would increase on the world stage and improve bargaining with our traditional allies.

    The issue for me is not so much about the spying but Abbott’s response. If he has decided that a larger role in Asia is part of Australia’s national interest and also is crucial in helping the Liberal’s Stop the Boats domestically, then why the diplomatic blow up? Far from strengthening Australia and asserting its perceived power, it has just reinforced what little influence we have in the region and how reliant we are on our neighbors.

    And the chest thumping looked like amateur hour.

  4. What I find astounding is that Australia seems to have ignored the fact that the fastest and largest growing economy in South East Asia is our closest neighbour.

    In isolation, this whole spying scandal would likely have blown over. But this was the latest in a series of incidents where Australia has disrespected Indonesia in the name of domestic political point scoring – ceasing cattle trade, boat tow-back policy, boat buy-back policy.

    Indonesia is an incredible source of trade and regional security potential for Australia.

    My feeling is that Abbott will have to eat crow with an apology and concessions in order not to sacrifice Australia’s long-term interests.

    • My feeling is that Abbott will have to eat crow with an apology and concessions in order not to sacrifice Australia’s long-term interests.
      Is he capable of doing that, though ?

  5. There is another serious global relevant issue here which is not debated adequately.
    Despite noise in some quarters that Rudd was responsible ( Flawes etc) the facts are that since 2005 the Director of DSD has had neither the requirement to seek Govt. approval nor to tell anyone WHF DSD is doing.
    Note; alarmingly; that numerous / various “intelligence” organizations appear to be operating on a “we can therefore we can” agenda without effective over sight. International politics now has a big player who is making up it’s own rules; apparently even outside conventional laws; behind “we will protect you”, “we know best” secrecy.