25 November 2007

The past is a foreign country

Another failure of policy analysis in the Australian media.

This article purports to be an examination of the career of the then Foreign Minister, with the implicit message that he's doing a great job and you can perpetuate quality policy by re-electing the Howard government.

Sheridan's article aims to support the rhetorical question-and-answer the seventh and eighth paragraphs ("But already ... ministers.") in his article. He should do so clearly, with insight and wit as optional extras. He fails at this, displaying no insight about the area in which his friend operates nor any areas where Downer has really succeeded or failed.

I saw the article today, after the election, and will resist the temptation to be wise after the event. Let's read it in its context and see whether it succeeds in telling us much about Australian foreign policy in the hands of Downer particularly, and the Coalition generally.

Skip past the flatulent first five paragraphs: they contain untested assertions and the silly implication that elections are inconvenient to elected politicians.
The most significant foreign minister in Australian history by far was Percy Spender. He gave Australia the alliance with the Americans, ANZUS; he also brought about the Colombo Plan; and he was responsible for Australia committing ground troops to the Korean war. He was not foreign minister for all that long, but that is an unmatchable trifecta. I rank Downer as just behind Spender as one of Australia's most significant foreign ministers.

Percy Spender was sworn as Minister for External Affairs on 19 December 1949 and was replaced sixteen months later, on 26 April 1951. Talk about damning with faint praise: Downer has been in office five times longer than Spender, also during a period of profound geopolitical realignment, and has achieved less.
Downer is well liked by specialist foreign affairs journalists who spend time with him, but he is not much liked by the press who don't know him very well. This is mainly because he has a slightly, just slightly, plummy way of speaking.

What about the notion that Downer covers his insecurities by condescending to people who aren't less intelligent than he? Sheridan, like Downer, cultivates an air of self-satisfaction that can be repellent to Australians.
In truth Downer is an earthy, vigorous, intelligent and extremely hardworking Foreign Minister. His physical stamina is remarkable. I've been in many foreign cities attending or covering meetings with Downer and the night almost always ends up in his hotel room with a few people having a late-night drink. Downer doesn't actually drink much at these sessions but smokes cigars relentlessly and talks and talks and talks.

There is often a bit of ribaldry and good-natured Australian chiacking, but 95 per cent of the talk is policy. He is relentlessly interested in all aspects of foreign policy and he talks through his ideas in countless late-night sessions such as these.

So, he saves his best for impressing journalists in hotel rooms? Nothing about what happens in those meetings (accepting that some sessions are secret), we are seriously asked to accept that impressing journalists is the essence of his job, the criteria on which he should be judged.
In substance it is impossible to distinguish Downer's achievements from Howard's in foreign policy.

Why no mention of East Timor in this article? No mention of the resentment Pacific nations feel toward Australia (again with the condescention: perhaps you're used to it Greg)?
after some early near-death political experiences - Australia losing its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council and a great controversy over the cancelling of an aid finance program - he buckled down and really got to work.

Why did these matters not kill his career stone dead? If the Prime Minister accepted disasters on this scale, doesn't it show that he doesn't take foreign policy seriously?
In foreign policy, longevity is an enormous strategic asset.

Again with the assertions: proof that it's worked to our benefit, Greg?
it is inconceivable that we could have got much more intimately involved with China, Japan, Indonesia and now, albeit a little belatedly, India, during the past few years.

Really? Why not? Is this a failure of imagination on your part? Why the lag with India - I still don't understand why the hissy fit boycotting India in 1998 has now been reversed, or even to what extent. Was it possible for Downer to have built a relationship with Musharraf that positioned Australia as an honest broker with the West, heading off or ameliorating the current situation in Pakistan? If Sudanese refugees are such a big problem, why not exert Australian resources and efforts toward a solution that might stem this exodus?

True, an article like this can't cover everything. It should, however, offer more than the reflection of Downer's late night bull sessions.
Most of all Downer, like Howard, has recognised the nature of the enemy in the war on terror and he has not shirked the battle.

The main job of foreign policy is to accurately assess the threat, and assertions aside it's not clear he's succeeded; hairy-chested nonsense about battles and shirking is out of place until this confidence can be built.
He seemed to take himself too seriously and his job too lightly.

When it comes time to write the epitaph on Greg Sheridan, this is the quote to use.

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