But I Only Ate the Chicken!


As most of us know, Australia’s new Prime Minister is a former diplomat. Comfortable in the international arena, Kevin 07 is revelling in the opportunity to establish new relationships and engage in international debates. Meeting Hillary Clinton appears to have been a personal highlight for the PM, who knows the Clintons, while Barack Obama had to make do with a phone call.

The mainstream media debate has focused on the photo opportunities and Rudd’s decision not to visit Japan. Whether this adds up to a slight on a long-standing ally and important trading partner, as Brendan Nelson has tried to argue, remains to be seen. It’s more likely, as Allan Patience writes in today’s Age, that the Japanese have themselves been lukewarm on Australia, owing to the recent spat over whaling. Smoothing over this kind of issue is the reason countries maintain a foreign service; a special summit with Japan is rumoured to already be in the works.

Underlying all the photo opportunities has been a subtle but important strategic shift in Australia’s foreign policy. All of a sudden, "creative middle-power diplomacy" is the new catch-phrase for Australia’s relationship with the world.

So far, the most visible manifestation of the shift comes in the form of Rudd’s campaign to get Australia a place on the UN Security Council. This 15-nation body comprises the five permanent members (UK, France, China, US and Russia) plus a rotating shift of 10 countries with two-year terms. Australia hasn’t had a seat on it since our last era of activist middle-power foreign policy, in 1986.

Pushing for a seat on the Security Council is going to cost Australia tens of millions of dollars in campaigning. It sounds expensive, and it isn’t consistent with some surprisingly large cuts to the Department of Foreign Affairs mooted in the upcoming budget. But it is a big signal to the rest of the world that Australia is serious about re-engaging with multilateral security arrangements.

Australian membership of the Security Council is more than purely symbolic, as the Security Council makes binding resolutions on things like UN military interventions. But the veto power of the permanent members also means that the role "middle powers" like Australia can play there is necessarily limited.

Just what does this phrase "creative middle power diplomacy" mean anyway? In a nutshell, it describes a more activist Australian foreign policy that will seek to represent our voice and interests in international bodies like the UN and NATO. Whereas John Howard and Alexander Downer were notoriously skeptical about the UN and multilateralism in general, Rudd will seek a seat at the table for Australia at the big conferences and on the big issues.

This is already playing out in Australia’s push to have more say in the NATO operation in Afghanistan. Indeed, new Defence Minster Joel Fitzgibbon has been quite vocal about NATO’s strategic confusion in Afghanistan, telling an Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) conference in March that "the Government remains committed to the project but is frustrated at the lack of progress." Fitzgibbon is in Bucharest right now for the current NATO summit – even though Australia is only an observer to what is, after all, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Afghanistan is the first test of Australia’s newly sought middle-power credentials. A lot of the fighting is being done by another middle power, Canada, and Rudd has used Australia’s commitment there to placate US President George W Bush over our planned withdrawal from Iraq.

Military operations in Afghanistan are organised under a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, alongside separate US operations under a unilateral mandate. Although the ISAF commander is himself an American, it has not been a recipe for co-ordination, with Canada, the US and UK doing the bulk of the fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan’s dangerous south. In contrast, Germany has placed severe restrictions on where its troops can be sent (in general, only to safer parts of the country). The Canadian Government of Stephen Harper recently threatened to pull out if NATO didn’t send an extra 1000 troops to volatile Kandahar province.

Rudd hasn’t stopped with NATO. On Monday he signaled that Australia wants to be involved with the North Asian security sphere, arguing that the current six-party talks (covering the US, Russia, China, Japan and North and South Korea) should be expanded. "Given Australia’s strong economic and strategic interest in North Asia, we would see ourselves as a participant in any such mechanism at the earliest opportunity," the Prime Minister said in a speech to the Brookings Institution in Washington.

It’s all about engagement and "being there" for our hyperactive PM. But being a middle power comes at its own cost. Some of these are financial – like our push to join the Security Council. Some are more serious than mere dollars. So far only four Australian troops have been killed in Afghanistan in almost seven years. That rate will likely increase.

The other issue for the newly active Australia is strategic. In some ways, Rudd’s new doctrine merely returns Australian foreign policy to the post-World War II foundations laid by H V "Doc" Evatt, as foreign policy analyst Carl Ungerer has pointed out.

But Rudd’s middle power fascination also pre-empts important aspects of the Defence White Paper review process currently underway. Some of the most important of these relate to the force structure of our future ADF. Should we really be seeking to buy expensive F-22 or Joint Strike Fighter jets, when what we are most likely to need in future military interventions are boots on the ground? As ASPI’s Mark Thompson has carefully demonstrated, we probably can’t afford both.

As Carl Ungerer pointed out last week, "the middle-power tradition requires that states maintain a high degree of defence self-reliance. In order to play a decisive role in regional security dynamics, middle powers need to sustain sufficient strategic weight to influence political outcomes."

The logic of being a middle power may lead Kevin Rudd into more military commitments as Prime Minister. To quote Kevin Rudd himself, "we’re in Afghanistan for the long haul." To Afghanistan you can add: East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Darfur and now perhaps North Asia as well. The Australian Defence Force’s "high operational tempo" is unlikely to slow down any time soon.

The unspoken assumption behind the middle power doctrine is this: asking for a seat at the table often requires picking up some of the tab.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.