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Weekend catch-up: White Paper reaction, foreign agents, ‘maskirovka’ and more

The week that was on The Interpreter.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a film screening, November 2017 (Photo:
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a film screening, November 2017 (Photo:
Published 2 Dec 2017 

By John Gooding, Digital Editor at the Lowy Institute and Associate Editor at The Interpreter.

The Foreign Policy White Paper analysis continued unabated this week on The Interpreter as James Curran argued the document saw a new Asia, but wished for the old (Curran's piece was also picked up by the Global Times):

This White Paper is, as it ought to be, full of tension between the pull of history and the imperatives of geography, between the world as it is and the world Australia would like to see. The authors know, however, that history has surprises up its sleeve. They acknowledge that the forces buffeting global politics may have consequences that are both unforeseen and uncomfortable for Australia. So for all its occasional caution, this document contains some stark messages that should deliver a necessary jolt to the national imagination.

While it may have existed since the end of the Second World War, the 'rules-based order' has only featured as a phrase in foreign or defence white papers since 2009. Ric Smith on this modern emphasis:

How then to account for the heavy focus by a Coalition government on the ‘international rules-based order’ and its associated values? Is it simply that matters so critical to Australia are at now at risk and so require renewed advocacy? Or is it, as some of Canberra’s cynics would have it, a matter of clinging to a fading past?...For explanation, perhaps we need look no further than one subtle but loaded sentence in the White Paper itself: 'Strong rules … are becoming more important to Australia as the distribution of power changes in the international system.'

James Batley on how White Paper's Pacific message:

The White Paper describes stepping up ‘support for a more resilient Pacific and Timor-Leste’ as one of only five ‘objectives of fundamental importance to Australia’s security and prosperity’. This gives the Pacific unusual prominence in a document of this nature. Even so, the rationale for the Pacific’s inclusion in this list of five top priorities is never made entirely explicit.

The White Paper's framing of gender quality as a development issue was disappointing, argued Sarah Boyd:

Gender equality is not only an obligation but a prerequisite for achieving foreign policy goals. Australia still has an opportunity to advance a human rights-based and feminist informed approach to foreign policy, international development and humanitarian assistance. It is just going to take a little longer to catch up to our more progressive friends.

The White Paper was also lacking when it came to outlining Australia's interests in engaging with the UN, wrote Sally Weston:

What is striking is how the White Paper overlooks and undervalues the benefits of Australia’s strategic engagement with the UN. The paper fails to specify what contributions Australia could offer to the UN’s program of work to support Australia’s interests and facilitate Australia’s agenda for what is branded in the title as ‘opportunity, security and strength’.

Does the White Paper adequately estimate the rise of China's economic power? Roland Rajah:

As we look to the future there is a risk of again failing to fully grasp how quickly changes in relative economic weight might translate into changes in the balance of power, particularly if compounded by other difficult to predict factors. One has to wonder whether the White Paper takes this sufficiently into account, or whether a decade from now it will seem obvious that China’s ability to reshape things was far greater than appreciated today.

Stephen Grenville on the White Paper's use of purchasing power parity:

If the White Paper wants to make a general point about relative economic size, this is about as good as can be done. But care is needed in drawing conclusions. If the intention is to compare economic weight, GDP (a flow of goods and services produced) needs to be supplemented by a measure of the capital stock of a country (the accumulated assets that support its capacity), including intellectual assets. China’s physical capital stock is a small fraction of America’s.

The White Paper authors chose to stay away from a particularly vigorous policy debate – how Australia's trade and investment partners should be ranked, wrote Greg Earl:

There has been a lot of recent sparring mixing up trade and investment stocks and flows in a microcosm of the emerging geo-economic competition forecast in the White Paper. So the authors could have contributed some useful analysis of the state of play in this new area of competition. This past column tried to do this by setting out trade and investment stocks and flows in one place and making the point there is no single correct answer.

Jonathan Pryke on what to like (and what not to like) in Papua New Guinea's 2018 budget:

The 2018 budget was handed down on Tuesday and is the first in this government's second term. It offered a chance for a course correction to address some of the underlying drivers of the country's economic malaise. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, the government has not seized this opportunity. Still, there are aspects of the budget that deserve praise.

Examining the approach of Xi Jinping's new administration in terms of risk might be a rewarding vein of analysis, argued David Kelly:

 The image of caution in economic reform, taken together with the predilection for incremental innovation in dispersed pilot zones, is hard to dispel. Not so in the political realm.

What exactly would be the point of a foreign agents law, asked Bret Walker:

Registration (and regulation) of so-called foreign agents, as proposed by the federal government, might enable the Australian public and our parliamentary representatives to know more about those who seek to influence public opinion and government policy. Yet the American experience with such legislation since 1938 is unfavourable.

Rebecca Vogel on how Russian agents want to lose the American elite and public in a 'wilderness of mirrors':

This struggle also speaks to a quirk of the human condition, that we look for certainty and want evidence, but this is where we must confront the limits of intelligence work. People often mistakenly conflate evidence and intelligence, but they are not equivalent. When faced with 'evidence', there is often a predisposition to believe it.

Hostile intelligence services leverage this quirk of the human condition in deception operations by showing the public what they expect and want to see. The Russians have their own term for these deceptive practices – ‘maskirovka’ – which embraces skilful, effective tradecraft aimed at manufacturing ambiguity.

The potential for governments and non-state actors to warp democratic processes via social media has been made all too apparent in a new report, wrote Damien Spry:

Social media has achieved pariah status. Like Saturn, the internet revolution is devouring its children. Freedom House's latest Freedom on the Net report details declining internet freedom for seven years in a row. This year's report varies from previous years, when issues like privacy, access and censorship dominated.

Marcus Colla on the political breakdown in Berlin, and what it means for Emmanuel Macron's vision for the EU:

Macron wanted to hit the ground running with his reform program as soon as the German elections were over. Now he may have to wait until spring of next year, after fresh elections and coalition talks, and at which point long-neglected domestic issues will be of much more pressing concern than turning into practice a grand European vision. Worse still, it is utterly unclear what result a new election would produce.

Tensions are high in Indonesian Papua – but when have the not been, asked Bobby Anderson:

Put into context, the latest violence in Mimika is thus both less unusual and more opaque than as described by the Indonesian government and by numerous media outlets. It's worth unpacking a few aspects of this fight in order to highlight a muddled network of relationships.

Finally, The Interpreter was host a series of pieces associated with the Australia-UK dialogue, which wrapped up this week. Authors included John Edwards, Ian Hall, Jacinta Carroll and Tim Huxley.

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