Kato and I went to the Lowy Institute last night to see Kim Beazley talk about Australia's foreign policy. I scrawled some notes on a piece of paper which I then left at Wagamama, but here is what I remember about what he said and what I thought:
[BK] Australia is now involved in a civil war in Iraq which is basically clan against clan.
[JT] Seems to me that it's more complex than that. Iraq has become a testing-ground in which nation states like Iran and the US are struggling for pre-eminence in the region. Also seems like it's in BK's interest to characterise the war as a mess with no broader strategic importance because it's Howard's war.
[BK] Iran has very successfully done nothing while the US handed them dominance by taking out Iraq then getting stuck there.
[BK] Iraq is different from Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, America had been attacked and thus Australia was obliged to engage under the ANZUS treaty. Also there was an unprecedented global coalition. It was in our interest to be there.
[JT] Not sure the ANZUS treaty applies because Afghanistan did not attack the US (Kato's point). But the conflict can still be characterised as different from Iraq in terms of its international support. The question then becomes on what terms do we engage globally?
[BK] We should be the ally America needs not the ally this current administration wants. "Mates talk straight."
[JT] Vomit-inducing quote aside, actually a good point here about how we are their only friend in an important region. Our long-term value to them is in things like Pine Gap and our regional capabilities. While it may be politically advantageous in the short term to go crusading with the US, we should instead make ourselves into a really useful regional force.
[BK] We need to focus on our region in both alliances and spending. Buying two large amphibious vessels, and investing heavily in the JSF without a stop-gap measure gives Australia small amounts of global capability with large risks of overstretching and of losing air dominance in the region. Instead we should be spending more on smaller amphibious vessels for regional incursions, like the ones hired at great expense for operations in East Timor recently. We should also utilise our great local industry in fast catamarans which the US have purchased for their SEAsian forces.
[JT] However B also said that regional vs global engagement was a "false choice". I don't understand this. If you have $X and you can either buy aircraft carriers to take tanks to Africa or smaller ships to send troops to the Solomons, it seems to me like there is a choice to be made. More on this below.
[Q] There was a question on whether region matters in our more global age. You've talked about the importance of the Afghan conflict. Is Afghanistan part of our region?
[JT] I thought this was a good question because it showed up the inherent difficulty of criticising procurement of global platforms and emphasising regional engagement while also supporting Australia's role in some global conflicts but not others. Maybe the "false choice" idea was B's way of saying that there can be no hard and fast rule about where and when Australia should engage, only different emphasis and different capabilities.
[BK] However B didn't say that. He said "Of course your region matters, it's where you live."
[JT] Penetrating insight of the quote aside, I tend to think that region does matter. Movement of people is still heavily restricted by both physical limitations (as we have not yet got jetpacks or teleporters) and national barriers. So the people closer to us can still hurt us more easily. I'm not sure if this means that our foreign policy should be defined more by regional than by global interests but I think region still matters.
[BK] We need a Department of Homeland Security in Australia.
[JT] Does another department bring the desired coordination among different services such as intelligence and border security? Not sure the experience in the US has been entirely positive.