MH17 Changes Abbott's Addled International Approach

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Foreign policy has a way of confounding Australians’ expectations of our prime ministers.

Sometimes the prime ministers we expect to perform well on the international stage do rather more poorly than anticipated. Others surprise. Kevin Rudd, for instance, a former diplomat and a fluent Mandarin speaker, was expected to be a highly successful prime minister abroad. Matters didn’t quite pan out that way, as Rudd ruffled feathers in Beijing with some strident pro-democracy speeches, and suffered significant setbacks in international climate change negotiations.

Julia Gillard, in contrast, was notorious for her lack of interest in foreign affairs on coming to the prime ministership. But she proved surprisingly adept in international negotiations, smoothing relations with China and delivering a well-received speech to the US Congress.

Now it’s Tony Abbott’s turn to strut the world stage. Early signs were grim. Abbott has never been a huge supporter of diplomacy or multi-lateral institutions like the UN. In opposition, the Coalition argued strongly against Australia’s ultimately successful bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, claiming it was a waste of money.

Once in government, Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop struggled when confronted by their first international crisis, with Indonesia. The revelations that the Australian spy agencies had tapped Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s phone, and Abbott’s inflammatory rhetoric about seaborne asylum seekers, contributed to a sharp deterioration of relations with Jakarta.

But with the MH17 tragedy, Tony Abbott appears to have found a foreign policy issue that plays to his strengths. Confronted by an outrage abroad which claimed dozens of Australian lives (and many hundreds from the Netherlands,  Malaysia and elsewhere) Abbott has been his usual tough and uncompromising self.

Abbott’s aggression normally gets him into trouble, but in this instance, it may even have helped when dealing with Russian recalcitrance over the repatriation of the dead and the investigation of who sot down the Malaysian airliner.

In a delicious irony, the very role that Abbott campaigned against — membership of the UN Security Council — has given Abbott and Bishop a golden opportunity to take strong international action on the MH17 disaster.

Overnight, the UN Security Council approved a resolution by Australia “deploring the downing of a civilian aircraft” and “stressing the need for a full, thorough and international investigation.” The resolution further demands “that the armed groups in control of the crash site and the surrounding area refrain from any actions that may compromise the integrity of the crash site.”

There’s no doubt the resolution is a win for Australian diplomacy, as the BBC’s Nick Bryant observes today. “Having announced on Friday that it was determined to get a resolution, [Australia] managed to secure passage in the space of 72 hours,” Bryant writes from New York. “That may seem slow for those unfamiliar with the tortured geopolitics of the Security Council, but, in UN terms, it is close to warp speed.”

It was Australia’s membership of the Security Council that allowed the resolution to happen. Perhaps Kevin Rudd’s idea for Australia to seek a seat on the Council wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Unsurprisingly, the media has lapped up the news. The Murdoch newspapers are crowing that “Moscow has bowed to Tony Abbott’s demands” and even the ABC and Fairfax are carrying positive stories that prominently feature images of Julie Bishop representing Australia at the UN.

Whether this leads to rapid repatriation of the dead and the “full, thorough and international investigation” demanded is another matter. The geopolitical realities of the Donetsk region have not changed: rebel groups backed by Moscow remain in control of a large swathe of Ukrainian territory, a reality attested by the fact that it was Donetsk rebels that have handed over the MH17 black box. There is little evidence that the Ukrainian civil war can be quickly brought to a halt.

None of that will worry the Abbott government overly. Abbott’s main concern, and quite appropriately, has been to ensure the respectful handling of the crash site and a proper investigation. In securing a resolution to this effect, Abbott has won a considerable victory.

For an unpopular government leaking votes on most domestic issues, foreign affairs is thus shaping as a surprise silver lining to the gathering storm clouds. Speculation has already turned to whether it will secure a bounce in the polls for the Coalition, although wiser heads warn that in the long run, voters tend to forget about leadership moments such as this.

In Queensland in 2011, for instance, an unpopular Anna Bligh impressed everyone with her calm and collected handling of the state’s floods and cyclones. While Bligh’s short-term approval ratings soared, her government was wiped from office at the next election. It may well be that any bounce in public support resulting from Abbott’s positive showing in recent days is likely to be temporary.

Having said that, the good showing in New York may still imply some unexpected benefits for Australia’s long-term interests.  One of the more interesting questions about the MH17 crisis is whether it galvanizes the Abbott government to think more positively about the value of diplomacy and multi-lateral negotiation, and to eschew the kind of macho posturing that has served us so poorly in our recent relationship with Indonesia. As a “middle power” in an unpredictable world, Australia has more at stake than most countries in robust collective security measures and strong international institutions.

Australia has been well served by our diplomats on this occasion: a service the government would do well to remember when it comes time to frame Australia’s next White Paper on defence and national security. While the armchair generals continue to lobby for high-tech submarines and warplanes, it’s worth reminding ourselves that there are some outcomes that only diplomacy can achieve.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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