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Callick plays Dr Phil

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COMMENTS

15 January 2010 13:24

The Australian's Asia-Pacific editor, Rowan Callick, has strong words today about the Rudd Government's foreign policy performance. (They're not all his words, mind you. Three of the critical quotes in the piece come from my colleagues here at the Lowy Institute.)

There's certainly a case to be made that the Rudd Government has underperformed in foreign policy, particularly given the foreign policy credentials Rudd himself brought to the office of Prime Minister.

But Callick's piece feels strangely ephemeral, something brought about by the article's singular focus on relationships. The piece is studded with the language of personal relationships: 'friendship', 'intimate', 'strained', 'taken for granted', 'lonely'. And Callick's thesis is that 'relations with most of the important powers in the Asia-Pacific region are worse than when Rudd took over', as if that in itself is the most important basis on which to judge Australia's foreign policy. 

Yes, discourse and dialogue are essential elements of international politics, so it should concern us if the Government is making a poor job of this important task. But more important is how the well the Government serves the national interest, and good relations with foreign governments are not always in our interest.

So observing that '(r)elations with Fiji, the hub of the Pacific Islands region, have plummeted since military rule was established there' isn't a very good basis for judging the Government. In fact, given what has happened in Fiji since Rudd came to office, we would have more cause for criticism if relations with Suva were excellent. To a lesser degree, this is true of the China relationship also, given the provocations Canberra has been subject to from Beijing.

The focus on relationships also tends to bias the analysis in favour of short-term factors and away from structural issues that will have far greater weight in determining Australia's prosperity and security. So, OK, Rudd's Asia Pacific Community initiative has annoyed Singapore and some others. But the APC initiative is an attempt to deal with a once-in-fifty-years geopolitical shift that is tranforming our region. Next to that, what does Singapore's annoyance really count for?

I don't mean to downplay the relationship angle altogether. To paraphrase Jenny Hayward-Jones, you can only abuse a friendship for so long before both sides lose the will to protect it. So a sustained deterioration in relations can itself bring about deep, structural changes.

Photo by Flickr user Tzpkcht Kzmsrskstlrz, used under a Creative Commons license.

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