Comment

Obama's Iran deal gives a global lesson in diplomacy

Malcolm Turnbull is in Washington this week and could get some ideas for solving the challenges facing Australia in the world.

Should Malcolm Turnbull find himself wandering the rose garden at the White House with Barack Obama during a quiet moment in Washington this week, he should quiz the United States President about the backstory to the remarkable nuclear bargain reached with Iran.

How did Obama look beyond Iran's often brutal repression of its people, deadly regional mischief and dangerous past record of dishonest dealings, and see a chance for potential co-operation? And more importantly for Australia's interests, looking to the future, how does Obama think the agreement with Iran will transform the US approach towards Asia?

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If the link between the Iran deal and what is happening in our neighbourhood is not immediately apparent, let me explain.

The Obama administration pledged in 2011 to turn its attention to Asia in what was first branded a "pivot" of American attention towards the new centre of global growth and power, built around the rise of China.

But what became immediately apparent was describing the policy as a pivot was ill-conceived, for it implied turning  away from other regions, and the Middle East was one place that persistently demands attention. Almost as soon as Obama declared the new Asia focus, Iraq crumbled, the fear of Iran's nuclear ambition cast a continued shadow across allies, and the hope of a democratic "Arab spring" faded.

So instead, the US adopted the less abrasive language of a "rebalance" towards Asia, and realising for this idea to be taken credibly, the drain on US diplomacy from the Middle East had to be confronted. The US might never fully disentangle itself from the Middle East – in the stubborn conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, for example, or the scorching horror of Islamic State – but Obama's sustained effort with Iran offers the opportunity to build trust in addressing these other challenges and to move beyond the cycle of perennial crisis.

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Whether this ambition is fulfilled will be judged in the years after Obama leaves office, but at the very least his concrete agreement with Iran has given his successors a chance. This also coincides with a partial easing of US reliance on energy supplies from the Middle East, following innovations around the production of shale oil.

The upshot? Less demands from the Middle East will mean more time for the key players in US diplomacy to pay attention to Asia.

All this is worth remembering in Australia because the art of problem solving should be the essence of diplomacy. Talk about Australia's place in the world tends to obsess over the big picture: who is in and out of the club of international organisations, and the gradually changing contours of strategic competition.

But although it is important to take the long view, there is a tendency for an awful lot of prognostication and strategic argument, and precious little debate over practical action. The hard slog of negotiating on an intractable problem, finding a solution, coping with inevitable setbacks, then finding a way to move towards a broader goal is essential.

Which brings us back to Turnbull and his meeting with Obama. A promise of consistency and continuity isn't a particularly sexy political slogan, especially when you're meeting the man whose presidential campaign theme was "change", but we would expect Turnbull to emphasise steady-as-she-goes rather setting out grand ambitions.

Turnbull wants to send a message that after four months in the job and with an election some time this year, he doesn't plan any major shifts in Australian foreign policy. For instance, on the big questions of the fight against Islamic State, strategy towards China, or support for regional free trade, Turnbull has barely broken step with the approach of Tony Abbott. Except, of course, not to be Tony Abbott.

True, Turnbull didn't agree to a US request asking for extra military resources in Iraq and Syria, and a couple of Abbott loyalists believe he should have – although not with enough conviction to properly explain what type of troops or war machines, to go where, and to achieve what, exactly.

The criticism from conservatives such as Kevin Andrews is mostly about the struggle within Liberal Party, not the US alliance. Abbott was an enthusiast for military force, but had he stayed in the job, any expansion of Australia's role against IS would have been by his call alone. The US request went to some 40 countries, and in Australia neither military commanders, defence officials nor diplomats agitated to do more. My guess is Abbott, despite his tough talk, would have responded much as Turnbull has done.

China policy is a slightly trickier proposition, and Turnbull will deliver a speech in Washington about how he sees the shape of the region. Plenty of close observers of Australia's delicate dance to straddle relationships between Washington and Beijing are fond of recalling that in 2011, with the free hand of opposition, Turnbull warned Australians against "doe-eyed" fascination with the leader of the free world, declaring it suited Obama's domestic agenda to be seen to muscle up to China.

But the fascinating part of Turnbull's remarks back then came a few minutes later, when he declared, whatever the extravagant professions of loyalty to the US or fawning compliments to China,  "Australian leaders should never forget that great powers regard deference as no more than their due."

Looking back, the choice of language leaves you to wonder how that "deference" will manifest now that Turnbull is Australia's leader. One idea would be to take a cue from Obama and break down some of the challenges facing Australia in the world into achievable goals.

Daniel Flitton is senior correspondent at The Age.

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