Time for a re-think on Labor’s foreign policy
Since Kim Beazley’s resurrection, Labor’s focus has been largely reactionary and confined to the domestic sphere. It complains about the marginal fluctuation of interest rates and criticises the government for not spending more (God forbid!) on infrastructure and training. The party’s one major foray abroad, an attack on a troop deployment to Iraq, was a flop.
The reluctance to discuss foreign policy is understandable in an era of unprecedented Australian prestige and influence abroad. Yet Beazley’s domestic focus is driven equally by a desire to conceal the yawning gulf between himself and his party.
Beazley has been here before. In the wake of September 11, he successfully muffled the anti-American sentiment in Labor’s ranks for the duration of an election campaign.
But that discipline was never going to hold. Over the past few years, Labor has fashioned an internal foreign policy consensus based on two tenets: regionalism and mulitlateralism. The failing credibility of both concepts threatens to expose the sham of that consensus.
First, some history. The debate over Iraq exacerbated Labor’s anti-American sentiment, while elevating the importance of national security in the public mind. After Mark Latham’s ‘troops home by Christmas’ debacle, Bomber Beazley was summoned to restore Labor’s national security credentials. In the lead-up to last year’s election, while its lightweight leader read to children, policed junk food advertising, and reminisced about Green Valley, Labor left defence and foreign affairs to the grown-ups.
Awed by the magnitude of Latham’s defeat, most commentators failed to appreciate the effectiveness of Kevin Rudd and, in the final months, Kim Beazley. Realising that Labor’s increasingly shrill anti-American ranks would not let them side-step national security, but wishing to conceal the takeover by Labor’s lunatic fringe, they employed a brilliant tactical ruse.
With Howard strategically ascendant in foreign affairs, Rudd and Beazley fought a diversionary battle using the tenets of regionalism and multilateralism. Focusing on procedural criticisms (e.g., the way Iraq was liberated), they papered over Labor’s internal gulf by shifting debate away from the US alliance and onto peripheral issues.
Now the two tenets are reaching their use-by date, and Beazley faces an unravelling of Labor’s sham consensus. Here’s why.
The first tenet is regionalism, and Labor uses it to claim that Howard’s fixation on US operations causes him to neglect regional anti-terrorist efforts and hence Australian security.
This line is completely disingenuous. There is no reason why Australia cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, and it is unclear what our troops could do to enhance regional security if they were withdrawn from Iraq. (Invade Indonesia, perhaps?) Nonetheless, this argument largely neutralised the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta in the last election campaign.
The other element of the regionalism argument is a clone of Keating’s failed bid for cultural assimilation into Asia, dressed up in anti-terrorist clothes. Keating claimed that Asia would not trade with us if we did not abandon our Anglo-Saxon heritage. The new argument is that Asian nations would not work with us on security if we were too close to the US.
Most Asian nations run pragmatic foreign policies. Paul Keating’s post-colonial guilt and incessant cultural cringing before Asia aroused puzzlement amongst some, as well as undisguised contempt from Malaysia’s outspoken Dr Mahathir. By contrast, Howard’s embracing of Australia’s Anglo-Celtic cultural background put our neighbours at ease: they no longer had to humour the crazy white man trying to go native. Asian nations never wanted us to forswear our origins; they merely wanted to trade with us. They are.
Similarly, unashamed promotion of our relationship with the United States has not led to friction with Asia. Asian pragmatists have been happy to take security relationships to unprecedented levels in the War on Terror precisely because of our clout with the US, still the principal guarantor of stability in the region. This has discredited claims that Australia is neglecting the region.
In any case, the argument that support for the US in Iraq undermined us in the region always rang hollow, with regional powers like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea taking Bush’s side. In reality, opposing Bush would have devalued our greatest strategic asset, the US alliance, and left us marginalised regionally, apart from the poorer Muslim powers of Indonesia and Malaysia. With last month’s historic visits by the Indonesian President and Malaysian Prime Minister, the final vestiges of credibility were stripped from the regionalist argument.
The second tenet of Labor’s foreign policy approach is an appeal to the traditional Labor preference for multilateralism. It gave the anti-Americans carte blanche to rail against the dangerous cowboy Bush and his Australian poodle. Yet it left foreign policy ‘realists’ like Rudd and Beazley with a clear conscience, as there was no question that the war on Iraq was ripping up the established order in the United Nations as well as the Middle East.
With a compliant Australian media ever eager to portray the UN as a global ‘parliament of man’, not a corrupt club of autocrats trading in grubby commercial interests, the argument was sure to play well.
Today, the media is finding it difficult to ignore the UN Oil-for-Food scandal. An interim report stated that Kofi Annan’s chief-of-staff ordered the shredding of three years’ of documents the day after the investigation was announced. The final report will be far broader, addressing the largest program of embezzlement in history.
Even with biased reporting, the stench of corruption, not to mention sexual abuse and paedophilia, hangs thick over the UN. The Australian public already knew the UN was ineffectual; its claim to moral legitimacy was its only redeeming feature. Soon that claim will be tarnished beyond repair.
Meanwhile, that grand project of multilateralism, the European Union, is unravelling. With polls now foreshadowing a defeat for the proposed European constitution in the upcoming French referendum, and with the debate over Turkish membership starting to expose the lie of a united ‘multicultural’ Europe, the greatest exponent of multilateral consensus politics is in retreat.
The two tenets of Labor’s foreign policy approach, regionalism and multilateralism, are thus increasingly discredited. Without these distractions, the foreign policy debate will return to substantive
issues. The shaky détente between Labor’s leader and his anti-American party on these issues will fracture under pressure.
Beazley hopes that a more stable international environment will allow him to keep the focus domestic and avoid that pressure. One look at George W Bush’s recent appointments should dispel that hope. History is still on the march, and Labor cannot indefinitely avoid the great question of our age: Do we believe Western Civilisation is worth fighting for; or, like post-modern Europe and Australia’s artistic and academic classes, have we ceased to believe in the idea of the West? Labor’s leader, so enamoured of dissembling and equivocation, will have to decide – and convince his party to follow.