Thursday, June 12, 2008

Australia seeks an assertive international role

It's been roughly seven months since Australia's centre-left Labor Party swept to power, ending 11 years of conservative (at times neo-conservative) rule and installing former diplomat Kevin Rudd at the helm.

Under the conservative John Howard, Australia's foreign policy was all but void of an independent voice. Canberra retained a two-step distance behind US foreign policy, following Washington on every point and controversy.

Howard's Australia went to war against Iraq when the world and the UN wouldn't, stood hand-in-hand with Bush's refusal to sign Kyoto, attempted to sell uranium to India after the US signed a nuclear deal with Delhi, and vigorously supported American and Israeli peace-destroying policies in the Middle East, among many.

Australia was indeed a puppet state.

But no longer.

Rudd has only been in power for just over half a year and Australia is witnessing a remarkable come back to the international stage, unveiling foreign policies that occasionally conflict with Washington.

In seven months, Rudd has withdrawn troops from Iraq; ratified Kyoto; pushed nuclear non-proliferation with the call for an international committee; and called for a regional Asia-Pacific economic and security grouping on the lines of the EU that would incorporate China, India and the US.

Local critics have labelled Rudd's assertive foreign policies as over-stretching Australia's middle-power status. That may be so, and some of Rudd's plans - such as the regional Asia-Pacific group - may be ambitious, but what it does signal is that Australia is pursuing its own foreign interests without the United States.

Undoubtedly, Australia relies heavily on the security blanket the US offers, but is this decades-old mentality that white Australia is going to be swallowed by over-breeding Asians simply a matter of xenophobic paranoia? Do we really need such a deeply entrenched alliance with Washington? Is our alliance with the United States actually enhancing our protection in Asia, or endangering it?

Rudd's overtures to China - the world's tipped next superpower - appear to be a means to entrench Sino-Australian ties so deeply that any future conflict pinning the West against China would see Canberra play the arbiter, protected from both sides. If Australia maintains its distance from Asia by hiding behind Washington's shoulder (as Howard did), are we inviting potential animosity from the likes of Beijing and Delhi?

It appears increasingly convenient that Australia's centre-left foreign policies are coinciding with the close of Bush's neocon reign and Barack Obama's rise with promises and policies akin to Rudd's.

Is Australia's turnaround from neocon belligerence to liberal multilateralism a sign of what's to come from Barack Obama?

Indeed, not all is perfect.

The withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq was met with a redeployment to Afghanistan.

Rudd, under pressure from Australia's powerful Jewish lobby, still toes a staunchly pro-Israeli line in the Middle East, much to the displeasure of Australia's political elite. Former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, recently criticised Rudd and Howard's biased approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and urged Australia's leaders to revert to the neutral stance it once maintained in the region.

That appears unlikely, but debate and criticism of Israel is much more prominent in Australia than in the United States. For example, Malcolm Fraser did not receive the massive backlash given to former US President Jimmy Carter following his own public criticism of Israel's apartheid-like treatment of Palestinians. Public opinion in Australia swung sharply against Israel during its widely-covered onslaught of Lebanon in 2006.

If Rudd's Australia is any indication of what could be under an Ob-a-merica, then the world can sigh a heavy relief after years of neocon turmoil...if Obama wins.