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Abbott's first year: What the pundits get wrong

Abbott's first year: What the pundits get wrong

So, the first-year assessments are in, and it seems the Abbott Government has done well on foreign policy.

Mark Kenny says Abbott has established 'a solid profile as a man of purpose' on the world stage. Michelle Grattan says Abbott 'has shown an unexpected sureness on the international stage'. Barrie Cassidy says 'Whether it be repairing a damaged relationship with Indonesia, responding to the Malaysian air crashes, standing up to Russia, or confronting the brutality of the Islamic State, Abbott has been exemplary.'

All of these judgments lean heavily on the Abbott Government's response to the MH17 shootdown, and to that extent, they surely overstate the Government's foreign policy effectiveness.

Abbott is getting points for his blunt criticisms of Russia and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is being praised for hammering out a UN Security Council Resolution which got Russian support for an international investigation into the shootdown. But as last night's Four Corners program illustrated pretty clearly, the practical effects of all this have been negligible. President Putin, you will be shocked to hear, paid little heed to Abbott's criticisms, and the Ukrainian army roundly ignored the UN Resolution, advancing into the crash site in order to press its military advantage against the rebels.

Of course, we shouldn't be narrowly utilitarian in our judgments of foreign policy leadership; it's not solely about enacting effective policy. It also carries a symbolic and ceremonial role, particularly in the event of tragedies like MH17. But that's not to say, as Mark Kenny does, that the Prime Minister's role in such circumstances is to 'lead the outrage'. High emotion is never a good guide to statecraft, and as Raoul Heinrichs has argued, Abbott's rhetorical offensive may have been counter-productive.

The instinct to react emotionally has also marked the Abbott Government's response to the rise of Islamic State. Last week Abbott said the beheading of Steven Sotloff alone 'abundantly justifies' Australia's military involvement in Iraq. That is an extraordinary statement, when you stop to think about it: a single murder is apparently enough for Australia to send a squadron of fighters half way around the world to bomb IS for an undefined period. [fold]

The brutal execution of two Western journalists (along with the attempt to wipe out the Yazidi people) seems to have been decisive in turning elite opinion in the US and Australia on the threat of IS, and prompted what now looks to be almost certain Australian involvement in forthcoming expanded air combat operations against the group. But as Andrew Sullivan says of the effect the beheading footage has had in Washington:

Like the horrifying images of 9/11, these images scramble our minds. And they are designed to. They are designed to awake the primordial instincts and the existential fear that Salafist fundamentalists thrive reacting so comprehensively to it – the president has unwittingly given these poseurs a much bigger platform.

By contrast, Abbott has been more cold and calculating on Indonesia, both on the 'stop the boats' policy and on the spying issue. In both cases, Abbott has stuck steadfastly to a position and methodically achieved his goal. As Annabel Crabb says in regard to the boats policy, 'You may not agree with the method, but he's pulled it off.' As for the Snowden revelations that Australia was spying on senior Indonesian leaders and the president's wife, Abbott seems to have determined early on that his primary concern was the US alliance, and the intelligence-sharing arrangement that is at its heart. His Government fixed on a policy to protect that relationship, and after months of diplomatic pain with Indonesia, Foreign Minister Bishop last week signed a Code of Conduct with Jakarta that largely maintains the status quo on Australian spying.

Here we see the golden thread running through the first year of Abbott's foreign policy: the constant reaffirmation and reinforcement of Australia's alliance with the US, and with Washington's regional partners.

The Government agreed to join a US-led military mission against IS even before it was explicitly asked. The 2014 AUSMIN communique talks about a US Air Force and Navy presence in Australia, on top of the newly established US Marine base in Darwin. The Government has signed free trade deals with Seoul and Tokyo, with Abbott calling Japan Australia's 'closest friend in Asia'.  It has prioritised the Five-Eyes intelligence pact over the relationship with Jakarta. And we are now apparently set to sign a historic arms deal with Tokyo.

Which brings us finally to China. It is impossible to see this pattern of ever deeper ties with Washington and its allies as not being a reaction to Beijing's recent behaviour in the region. Beijing has become more deliberately confrontational over the first year of the Abbott Government, a twelve months marked by China's unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea and the moving of a CNOOC oil platform into waters off the coast of Vietnam that are claimed by China. Beijing, it seems, is is no longer just reacting to 'provocations' but is deliberately and pre-emptively asserting itself, and Canberra is noticing.

Yet the Abbott Government has also rapidly advanced its free-trade talks with Beijing, and so seems wedded to the Howard Government formula that Australia does not have to choose between its main strategic partner and its biggest economic partner. This arrangement also seems amenable to Beijing, for now. But as China grows and Beijing demands a regional security order that matches its status as an economic equal to the US, it becomes less and less clear that this posture is sustainable.

When the Abbott Government is eventually unseated, and peripheral foreign policy interests such as Ukraine and Iraq have long been forgotten, this will be the ground on which we ultimately judge its foreign policy performance.

Photo by Flickr user Tony Abbott.

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