When I gave my five reasons Tony Abbott will be a steady-as-she-goes foreign policy leader, I said that as a conservative, Abbott is temperamentally and philosophically sceptical of all forms of radicalism. But I also said that this view had to be tempered with the significant exception that Abbott supported the Iraq war. So let's begin there.
1. He supported the Iraq war.
Yes, so did nearly every major political figure in Australia at the time, including Kevin Rudd. But Abbott's language in defence of the war is not of the British-style conservative I referred to in my earlier post. From a realist-conservative perspective, Australia's involvement in the Iraq war could have been justified by citing the importance of maintaining ties with America. But Abbott did not make such a limited case. Instead, he used the lofty language of neo-conservatism, and a naive version of it, at that:
It was to liberate other people, to advance everyone’s interest and to uphold universal values that ‘the coalition of the willing’ went to war in Iraq. If it's possible to engage in an altruistic war, this was it.
That kind of language suggests an almost limitless appetite for military interventionism, and one wonders whether he would apply similar standards to future conflicts. In fairness, it's worth noting that Battlelines also describes the outcome of the Iraq war in highly equivocal terms.
2. He's got a loose tongue.
We're becoming aware in this election campaign of Abbott's occasional gaffes, and he's got himself into trouble on foreign policy too. In July he called the Obama Administration 'the most left-of-center government in at least half a century'. Why would you say such a thing publicly, even if you believed it? And if Abbott wins the election, what do you think will be the first question Abbott gets from an Aussie journalist at his inaugural joint press conference with President Obama? That will be an uncomfortable moment.
Then there was his description of the Howard Government's foreign policy as a 'kind of neighbourhood watch scheme for Western values', the sort of language which, coming from a prime minister, would not go down too well in Asian capitals.
And in retrospect (or even at the time), Abbott's judgment about Sarah Palin doesn't flatter him. He described her as a 'gutsy, capable, optimistic, decent woman'.
3. There might be a crisis.
I said in my earlier post on Abbott as a steady-as-she-goes foreign policy leader that because he is inexperienced, he is likely to play it safe in foreign policy initially. But circumstances can impose the need for big decisions before a leader is ready to make them. A regional crisis such as a breakdown in governance in PNG is one possibility, or perhaps another Middle Eastern war.
4. Western/Anglosphere triumphalism.
Abbott's view of Western civilisation and/or the Anglosphere (as I noted previously, he tends to conflate the two) is a strange mixture of intellectual modesty and chest-thumping. Here's a paragraph from his speech in Oxford last year which demonstrates the tension:
There are few problems that are ever finally solved. There are few subjects on which it can ever safely be assumed that we have heard the last word. There are hardly any arguments where right is all on one side. Truth matters – it matters as much as anything – but it is far more likely to be approached than ever finally to be grasped. This insatiable curiosity and ceaseless questioning that Oxford at its best embodies is the hallmark of Western civilisation (especially in its English-speaking versions) and provides our comparative advantage among the cultures of the world.
The first part of that paragraph implies that, as prime minister, Abbott would approach the world and his interactions with foreign leaders and peoples in a spirit of humility and curiosity, which is not only intellectually laudable but diplomatically smart. Yet the paragraph ends on a note suggesting that the world outside the West is less enlightened, which suggests that Abbott thinks he might not have very much to learn from that part of the globe.
Then again, Abbott has also pledged in a speech to an Indonesian audience that 'Under the next Coalition government, 40 per cent of high school students would study a foreign language within a decade. It would be a sign that we take other people's cultures and insights as seriously as they take ours.'
Photo by Flickr user Troy Constable Photography.