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Tony Abbott's 'swings and roundabouts' foreign policy

Date

Hugh White

On the hustings the prime minister pitched a conservative foreign policy. How quickly that has changed. By Hugh White.

Just a year ago the world was appalled by reports that the Assad Government had used chemical weapons against its opponents in Syria’s civil war.  Washington and London were calling for military action, and Kevin Rudd was loudly cheering them on. But Tony Abbott took a different line. In the midst of the federal election campaign, Abbott called for restraint.

This was the moment he famously described the Syrian civil war as ''baddies versus baddies'', casting doubt on the wisdom of any armed intervention, and playing down the military contribution that Australia should make even if our allies decided to strike.

He famously described the Syrian civil war as ''baddies versus baddies''. 

Hugh White

In the event, of course, they didn’t.  Barack Obama and David Cameron both backed off in the face of deep resistance from their electorates to further military commitments in the Middle East. They sheepishly accepted a Russian-brokered deal with Damascus instead.

This made Abbott look quite smart.  It reinforced an impression that  he was inclined to be careful about committing Australia‘s armed forces far from home where  this country's  interests were unclear, and the military objectives were ill-defined.

And it gave substance to his campaign promise to pursue a more modest, focused and practical foreign policy. There was going to be less global grandstanding in the Security Council and more careful cultivation of really important relationships closer to home. This was ''Jakarta not Geneva'' in action. 

How different things look today. Abbott spent last week overseas on a trip with no discernible purpose or outcome, except to identify himself more closely with the events in Ukraine and Iraq.  Julie Bishop wins plaudits for her success in getting a resolution through the Security Council on MH17,  while Australia is taking a lead in urging stronger sanctions against Moscow over its policy in Ukraine.

Abbott is happy to consider sending the SAS to Northern Iraq to fight IS and, in a reversal of roles from last year, seems eager to do so while Barack Obama holds back.  Then over the weekend it was reported that Abbott had seriously considered deploying 1000 Australian soldiers to occupy the MH17 crash site in Eastern Ukraine.  Fortunately wiser, cooler heads prevailed.

Meanwhile issues closer to home have inevitably got less attention.  Our troubled relationship with Jakarta remains in limbo, Australia was represented at this year’s South Pacific Forum by Warren Truss, and Abbott missed the chance to discuss Asia-Pacific security with the US Secretaries of State and Defence in Sydney.       

So something has changed.  One might say that the Abbott government has discovered that in a globalised world, Australia’s interests are engaged in many parts of the planet that are much closer to Geneva than Jakarta.  And of course that is true, up to a point.

As we know, Australia is not immune to what happens in Ukraine because Australians fly over Ukraine.  And Australia is not immune to the disaster that is engulfing Iraq and Syria, because Australians have gone there to fight.  And Abbott might say that our values are engaged in these crises as well. So Australia must be willing to take and stand and play its part in these great global events.

But of course that is what Kevin Rudd used to say, too, and no doubt he meant it.  But Rudd’s approach lacked both a sense of proportion and a sense of practicality.  Rudd always saw today’s crisis as the defining issue of the age, and was always so sure that ''something must be done'' that he didn’t pause to ask what realistically could be done that had any serious chance of working. 

The destruction of MH17 was a terrible tragedy, but it has no wider implications for Australian foreign policy.  The Government is right to help where it can to assuage the grief of those left bereaved. But it should not confuse this with foreign policy, and it should not make the mistake of concluding that the wider Ukrainian crisis has become a top priority for Australia. 

Likewise the collapse of Iraq and Syria and the emergence of IS as a serious political and strategic force in the Middle East, is a serious development in a region in which Australia has clear interests.  But we should not exaggerate what it means for us and in particular, we should not exaggerate the direct threat it poses to Australia’s security.

Good security policy requires a capacity to form sober assessments of threats that avoid both complacency and alarmism.  Our assessments of IS have started to veer sharply towards alarmism: yes, it is a serious concern, but it is not a threat to our way of life.  And we should not assume that a proportionate and practicable response to the threat as it really stands, would include deploying Australian forces for combat operations there.   We have been this way before and it ended badly.  

The bold global statesman who is our prime minister today is rather different from the cautious and conservative regionalist of a year ago.  Perhaps we should not be too surprised that Abbott and his team have lost their foreign and security policy bearings over the past few months.

It has been a strange and disquieting time crowded with crises and disasters.  But there is a risk that they will learn the wrong lessons, especially when they find, as they have, that the normally sceptical commentators and analysts are so willing to praise their efforts on the global stage.  Just as they used to praise Kevin Rudd. 

Hugh White is an Age columnist and professor of strategic studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.      

  

  

54 comments so far

  • So something has changed... Before he was PM Tony Abbott could "talk the talk" with no real consequences. Now he has to "walk the walk" - something he seems to be struggling with (alongside his ministers)

    Commenter
    peter
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 19, 2014, 12:17AM
    • Tony Abbott has confirmed what some noted politicians had serious doubt about him.

      Having lied to get elected, produced a class warfare budget that got stalled in the senate, and his ministers with foot-in-mouth moments, with nothing on the scoreboard but ineptitude for all to see.

      It makes worse by Tony Abbott's claim of having an adult government as alternative to Gillard's. That was another total lie.

      Now Tony Abbott will jump any chance to deflect away from his own mess.

      And that represents a potential danger to this country: Potential people's lives to enhance his position.

      Commenter
      TAA
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 7:24AM
    • ISIS may not be an immediate threat to Australians but blatently is to other innocent people. As much as I deplore the lightweight, self interested attitude of this govt we need leaders of all countries to stem the killings of people targeted by these barbarians.

      Commenter
      LJanes
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 9:33AM
    • What has changed is that now Abbott is the PM. He can't help himself, because he now has the opportunity to put troops on the ground to implement his own extreme Right wing agenda.

      To every complex foreign policy problem, there is a simple military solution. And it's wrong.

      Commenter
      Greg Platt
      Location
      Brunswick
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 12:03PM
    • Tony should be thanking Putin for convincing the USA and UK not to arm ISIS, not condeming him without evidence over MH17. He just shoots his mouth off to make him seem bigger, like his comments on Scotish Independence. This PM is a 10 pound imported Buffoon.

      Commenter
      Simon from Whyalla
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 1:09PM
    • In the interest of balance can the SMH ask Bill Shorten about the story about to break based on the article in The Australian written by Grace Collier. It is titled: “Labor’s looming disasters a golden opportunity for Coalition” in regards to the Bill Shorten police investigation: Sure you all know the facts, surely in the interest of journalism this story has to be told, enough fluff about Joe Hockey and poor people, the public should be aware of this.

      Commenter
      Peter G
      Location
      Drummoyne
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 4:17PM
    • The main aspect of Tony Abbott's foreign policy seems to be setting up prisons in other people's countries to detain Australia's asylum seekers.

      Commenter
      Marie
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 6:06PM
  • Tony's 'swings and roundabouts': When opinion polls swing against you, fly to London, where there are lots of roundabouts, and talk about anything but Australian domestic issues, including making pronouncements which annoy the people of err.. Scotland.

    This government gets more and more bizarre by the day.

    Commenter
    Heavy Leaner
    Date and time
    August 19, 2014, 1:01AM
    • What changed?

      Abbot said, that under his regime, Australia would do "anything" America asked it do in Washington three months ago..

      So now our foreign policy merely consists of mindlessly following whatever emailed instructions arrive from our wise, peace loving American friends.

      Reintroducing British imperial honours was just the tip of the iceberg. Abbot see Australia's future, like our past, as a subservient colonial branch office that provides troops and raw materials to the 'real world.'

      Commenter
      Useful Idiot
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 7:38PM
  • My God man are you not on board with Team Australia? Do you not run the flag up everyday? We have new rules for people like you!

    Commenter
    Master
    Date and time
    August 19, 2014, 1:17AM

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