Commentary | 25 July 2014

This is a consular crisis, not a new foreign policy challenge

This is a consular crisis, not a new foreign policy challenge

Sam Roggeveen

Australian Financial Review

25 July 2014

Please click here for the online text.

  • Sam Roggeveen

This is a consular crisis, not a new foreign policy challenge

Sam Roggeveen

Australian Financial Review

25 July 2014

Please click here for the online text.

  • Sam Roggeveen

Executive Summary

The MH17 tragedy has shown how connected the world is-and how we must choose where to use meagre foreign policy resources.

The Abbott government has managed the MH17 tragedy deftly, and this is no small thing. Those who observed the Malaysian government's uncertain handling of the MH370 disappearance will recognise how different tilings can be. And getting a United Nations Security Council resolution passed within 72 hours, with Russian and Chinese support, is an achievement though it won't mean very much if it is not implemented on the ground.

But let's not confuse an effective piece of diplomacy with a substantial development in foreign policy. This should be seen primarily as a consular crisis - an emergency requiring the care of Australians who are sick, hurt or in trouble overseas - not a test of the government's foreign policy and not a cause to rethink Australia's place in the world.

With one exception (more on that later), this is not a foreign policy crisis because it has not asked any big foreign policy questions of Australia's leaders.

To illustrate the point consider the fact that the MHT7 shootdown was the largest loss of Australian life in a single overseas incident since the 2002 Bali bombing.

Both were senseless tragedies and in both cases, the government responded with alacrity to take care of Australia's injured and honour its dead.

But the comparison between the two events cannot stretch much farther. The Bali bombing was more than a consular crisis. It was also a diplomatic and security crisis that demanded tough decisions affecting our relations with neighbours, our budgets and ultimately Australia's way of life. It led to the expansion of Australia's intelligence agencies, the passing of domestic security provisions that curtailed our freedoms, and unprecedented levels of cooperation with Indonesian law enforcement (a strategy which has paid off handsomely, with Jemaah Islamiya a diminished force these days).

It's difficult to see that the MH17 downing will have any such long-term policy consequences for Australia.

Moreover, unlike the Dutch, who are caught between justified outrage at the loss of 193 citizens and a substantial trade relationship with Russia, the Australian government has had to make no political sacrifices and take no risks in this crisis.

Australia is relatively free to criticise the Putin regime because we have little at stake in the relationship, and Russia cannot do much harm to Australia

Julie Bishop told The Australian Financial Review on Thursday that the MH17 tragedy, along with the Syrian civil war and tension on the South China Sea, show we are living in a dangerous world "where we seem to be in constant crisis".

"The conflicts, while seemingly at first blush having nothing to do with Australia, in fact... it's interconnected and here we are being drawn into the Ukraine-Russian conflict through the most extraordinary circumstance."

Yet the degree to which we are drawn in to the Ukraine conflict is nevertheless a choice for the government

Just because the world is becoming more interconnected does not mean that every conflict and every crisis is of equal weight to Australia. In fact this interconnectedness just accentuates the need to be discriminating in where we put our too-meagre foreign policy resources.

So what is the exception mentioned earlier? The one truly thorny foreign policy question to emerge from the MH17 tragedy for Australia is what to do about Vladimir Putin's attendance at the November G20 conference in Brisbane, and it is notable that the government's otherwise tough language has been more equivocal when addressing this issue. This is appropriate.

For one thing, other G20 members will argue this is not Australia's decision to make. But in any case, there is no need to make a decision yet and the threat of withholding a seat at me table gives Abbott just a little leverage over the Kremlin.

When the time comes, this will be a truly difficult decision because it will impose costs on the government no matter what it does. Barring Putin will invite a backlash from Russia and possibly several other G20 members. It will also change the character of an institution which was designed to co-ordinate international economic policy.

Much hangs on Putin's behaviour between now and November.

If Russia is seen to be co-operating with international investigators on the MHT7 downing, perhaps the Australian public will wear Putin's attendance at the Brisbane summit

But if his intransigence continues, will _ Abbott be able to greet Putin with a handshake in Brisbane before the world's media? That will make for an awkward photo-op.

Sam Roggeveen is a Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and editor o/The Interpreter.

Barring Putin will invite a backlash from Russia and possibly several other G20 members.