Playing with the Big Boys


Kevin Rudd said Australia was returning to middle-power multilateralism, he really meant it.

Not only has Rudd made a bid for Australia to be readmitted to the UN Security Council, he has just proposed a new Asia-Pacific regional security grouping – possibly an expansion of the six-party North Korea dialogue, or an extension of the ASEAN Regional Forum. (If he goes on to suggest a greater role for Japan in these proposals, this might go some way towards making Tokyo feel better about being ‘snubbed‘.)

These are great ideas, and if they actually come off, they will potentially be solid, long-lasting foreign policy achievements.

The other great multilateral institution Rudd is set to visit is the NATO summit in Romania.

Rudd’s historic attendance as the first Australian PM at a NATO meeting is due to Australia’s ongoing military commitment since October 2001 to the NATO-led war in Afghanistan. Australia has pledged to maintain but not increase its troop commitment of 1100 to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), where ADF forces remain at considerably greater risk than in Iraq, having suffered four fatal casualties so far.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has previously attended two NATO meetings, in Scotland and Lithuania, criticising both the previous Howard government and NATO for poor planning and coordination of the Afghan War. Fitzgibbon called last week for greater efforts towards reconstruction, counter-narcotics and improved training of the slowly expanding Afghan security forces, a proposal Rudd will essentially re-endorse in Bucharest.

If Rudd again raises NATO’s disunity and the lack of commitment by most of its European members to the War, his somewhat chummy "we’re okay about Iraq" meeting with President Bush indicates he will not offer any similar criticism of the USA for its role in the poor state of security in Afghanistan.

The Bush Administration bears the greatest responsibility after all, being the largest military contributor (19,000 out of 47,000 ISAF troops) and in charge of overall strategy and operational planning.

Fortunately for NATO, the new Pakistani Government of PM Yousaf Raza Gilani has indicated it will attempt negotiations with the Taliban-supporting militants that have established safe havens near the Afghanistan border. This will be essential for securing long-term peace in Afghanistan, as newly reappointed ADF Chief Air Marshal Angus Houston has sensibly acknowledged.

The challenges of securing Afghanistan will remain daunting however, as both security and reconstruction aid have been vastly inadequate so far. Just as Pakistan may move towards a negotiated settlement with its militants, any resolution of the Afghan War is also likely to involve some form of political deal between Kabul and the Taliban – an unpalatable prospect that NATO and Rudd are unlikely to highlight, but probably quietly acknowledge.

While Rudd will be arguing for a more focussed and united NATO strategy on Afghanistan, it is unlikely that he will take this rare opportunity to address some of NATO’s more controversial policies. Of particular concern is Labor’s seemingly favourable attitude towards America’s anti-ballistic missile (ABM) shield project – sometimes called "the Son of Star Wars" – the successor program to the Reagan-era Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI).

The proposed missile shield is proving to be provocative, counterproductive and strategically destabilising, with a resurgent Russia particularly critical of US plans to deploy some of the shield’s missile launchers and radars in Poland and the Czech Republic. China feels a potential threat as well. This folly is compounded by the fact that such a "missile shield" is unlikely to actually work.

Another worry is the dearth of comment from the Labor Government about a report delivered to NATO in January by a working group of former NATO defence chiefs, titled: "Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World." It recommended NATO pursue a "first-use" nuclear weapons doctrine, supposedly to deter "rogue states" (ie, Iran and North Korea) and terrorists. If Rudd and Fitzgibbon are going to rebuke NATO over Afghanistan, they should be even more critical of this dangerous and immoral proposal to essentially advocate nuclear war.

The Rudd Government has made very welcome and important changes to Australia’s foreign and defence policy; withdrawing (mostly) from Iraq, reviewing defence acquisitions, and ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, as well as the Additional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture, and the ‘Wellington Declaration‘ against cluster bombs.

However, its continuing embrace of the US missile shield shows a disappointing lack of critical judgment towards this aspect of the alliance. Australia’s ongoing commitment to NATO’s war in Afghanistan threatens more difficulties, as that war is likely to drag on for years, possibly decades.

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