The tag is cut: how will the Trump-Turnbull spat damage the alliance?

3718071086_59a816c2d7_mWhen former prime minister Paul Keating said last year it was time to “cut the tag” and loosen the bonds of the Australia’s alliance with the US, who would have thought the man wielding the knife would be Donald Trump?

The public disagreement between the Trump White House and the Turnbull government over the deal to send asylum seekers languishing on Manus Island and Nauru to the US is unprecedented. At no previous time in the history of the Australia-US alliance have things seemed so dire – and got there so quickly.

Past tensions kept quiet

Australian and American leaders over the years have, from time to time, disagreed or said things to cause embarrassment. But for the most part, such disagreements have been kept out of the limelight.

John Howard and Bill Clinton did not like one another. Their discomfort did not, however, seriously affect the alliance. But sometimes discomfort breaks into something stronger.

Blanche D’Alpuget, Bob Hawke’s then-biographer (and later his wife), recounts that Australia’s former foreign minister, Bill Hayden, and US Secretary of State George Shultz loathed one another. Hayden referred to Shultz as “the German pork butcher”, while Shultz called Hayden “stupid” to his face.

But, unlike the current saga, the Hayden-Shultz spat did not become public until after D’Alpuget published her Hawke biography.

In 2008, the content of another phone conversation between Australian and US leaders became pubic. A brief row broke out when reports emerged of a leaked conversation between Kevin Rudd and George Bush.

As the 2008 financial crisis erupted, Rudd had suggested using the G20 as a way of handling things to Bush in a phone conversation. Bush allegedly replied:

What’s the G20?

The White House angrily rejected the public version of events.

Time to think differently

Members of the US Congress have made a rare intervention in the latest spat in an attempt to counter Trump’s amateurish handling of the issue. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said:

Australia is a very important and central ally and it’s going to continue to be.

Republican senator Lindsey Graham admonished Trump, suggesting the president “sleep more and tweet less”. Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said:

Before the president shows such disrespect again, he should consider this: there is only one nation that has stood with us in every war of the last century, from the fields of France and Belgium to the mountains of Afghanistan – Australia.

Trump has handled this situation very badly. In a very short space of time he has undone decades of work in building trans-Pacific security ties between Australia and the US. Other American allies – Japan and South Korea in particular – must look on, aghast at what has transpired.

But the Australia-US alliance was already under pressure before the phone call between Trump and Malcolm Turnbull went awry. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a vital element in the Obama pivot to Asia, was headed for the dustbin even before the US election. Within hours of being sworn in, Trump cancelled US involvement in the trade deal.

More ominously, other US security partnerships in the region exhibit severe strain. In an eerie and intemperate foreshadowing of Trump’s outburst, Philippine President Duterte in 2016 called Barack Obama a “son of a whore” and then denounced his country’s security alliance with the US and embraced the Chinese.

While many aspects of the US-Philippine relationship are still in place, it is nonetheless showing signs of strain.

In 2016 the Chinese refused to comply with the decision handed down by tribunal convened under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The tribunal found the Chinese had violated the UN convention in asserting its claim to disputes islands in the South China Sea.

The Australia-US relationship has suffered numerous knocks over the past year. The greatest threat to it has not come from China, the Philippines or Australia, but from the US. Trump’s misguided handling of the refugee issue and his withdrawal from the TPP has combined with external events to place real pressure on the alliance.

Trump has cut the tag. Now Australia must think differently about its relationship with the US.

creative-commons-logo-4cd655489c196c20a2416b8b696f5c31e9fec70dc21b5fdbf99306454f22f766 An earlier version was published in The Conversation

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Australia’s foreign affairs song remains the same


Kookaburras, circa 1900, Powerhouse Museum

Australia’s last foreign affairs white paper, Advancing the National Interest, hit the streets in 2003.  Since then a lot has happened – wars waged, governments overthrown, and economies collapsed, just to mention the high points. Amid all of this change, however, is the feeling that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Coalition government has announced it is about to get to work on the next foreign affairs white paper. What can we expect?

Back in 2003 the authors of that white paper identified several challenges — terrorism, the future of the European Union, the ANZUS alliance, engaging with Asia, and assisting Pacific Island countries. In the ensuing 13 years the challenges have shifted somewhat, although some have a familiar ring – terrorism is still a problem, the need to deepen ties with the EU remains, but now without the UK, the requirement to engage with Asia is perennial as is maintaining ANZUS, and the Pacific Islands still need help.

What has changed? China is increasingly assertive. Australia’s largest trade partner has ruffled regional feathers by building bases in the South China Sea and thumbed its nose at the UN. Russia has re-emerged in troubling ways as a global force. Asymmetric campaigns against its opponents in Ukraine and elsewhere create problems leaving Western countries unsure of how to reply. The Arab Spring has collapsed into the oozing sore that is Syria. Since 2003 a refugee crisis has unfolded across northern Africa and the Middle East testing Europe’s will. Elsewhere migration flows enflame nativist sentiments. Declining rates of growth in economies around the globe today stifle and complicate government decisions from Washington to Beijing to Brussels. As if all of that were not enough cybersecurity has also erupted as an issue of concern for governments and businesses alike. The trial of climate change deepens this global complexity.

Replying to these challenges would have been hard enough for the finest political masters. Over the course of the past 13 years political leadership, however, has hardly been up to the task. Like most things, the quality of political leadership is not a constant but varies over time. In recent years it has been woeful around the globe. This is not to say that every political decision has been bad, or that some have not been excellent. It is to say that on balance political decision-making has not been of a high calibre.

Some of the more striking low quality political decisions made range from President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, followed by President Obama’s ill-conceived disengagement, to subsequent Australian prime ministers’ handling of asylum seekers, including the Rudd government’s decision to end the Pacific Solution and the Gillard/Abbott embrace of the son of Pacific Solution and Turnbull’s inability to manage the next steps. President Xi’s embrace of nationalism and an associated decision to build island bases in the South China Sea, Vladimir Putin’s decision to annex Crimea and the West’s virtual acquiescence, and David Cameron’s encouragement for a vote on the UK’s position in the European Union also fall into this category. President Rodrigo Duterte’s advocacy of extrajudicial killing of drug dealers in the Philippines ranks similarly low down on the scale of quality political decisions, as does the half-hearted way in which leaders from around the globe address climate change.

It would be easy to explain away such poor decisions. Their cause might be bad analysis, craven pandering to popular opinion and/or a lack of gumption.

The examples of Iraq, asylum seekers, climate change and UK membership of the EU are explained by domestic political division, the midwife to many of these ill-conceived ideas. Political leaders have been held hostage by a rump within their party. In order to placate these internal agitators, political leaders give in with hopes of securing their leadership. Of course, having capitulated to the cabal’s demands political leaders hurt their own effectiveness and restrict their room to manoeuvre.  Xi, Putin, and Duterte, much like Trump in the US, build their political base on a call to make their country great again. The romance of nostalgia calls to the public and those that stand in the way are swept aside.

The new white paper will focus attention on the myriad challenges, both new and old. Australia’s diplomats are dedicated professionals. To a person, they will do the bidding of their political masters, and their utmost for Australia. The new white paper will be their map forward.

It’s too bad that the white paper will tell only part of the story. Left unsaid will be a call for better informed and considered decisions from political leaders.

See original post at Policy Forum

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New Problem Solving for One blog

detourIf you are looking for material related to problem solving for one go to the new site  You will find problem solving for one (PS1) material there.

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The Power of Contrast

Nelson_Mandela-2008_(edit)Below are excerpts from Nelson Mandela’s “Statement from the Dock at the Opening of the Defence Case in the Rivonia Trial,” Pretoria Supreme Court, South Africa, 20th April, 1964.

Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalize and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.

Later, at the end of his statement Mandela declared:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.

It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

rob fordFor contrast read the statement from Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s admission to using illegal drugs while in office.

“Yes I have smoked crack cocaine. But I am not an addict….  Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors.” (CTV News, Nov. 5, 2013)

In a statement released later that day he further explained,

“I love my job — I love my job, I love this city, I love saving the taxpayers money, and I love being your mayor. There is important work that we must advance and important decisions that must be made. For the sake of the taxpayers of this great city, for the sake of the taxpayers, we must get back to work immediately. We must keep Toronto moving forward.” (CTV News, Nov. 5, 2013)

Mandela gave up his freedom in his campaign for social, racial and democratic justice. Rob Ford gave up crack to be Mayor.  The contrast speaks for itself.

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Foreign Aid, Bad Driving, and Other Tales of Woe

car wreck

An Australian colleague once told me a story of watching two cars collide in an otherwise empty car park early one Sunday morning. The drivers, unknown to one another, shared only one goal of finding a parking space among an abundance of free spaces, yet somehow they managed to run into one another. Abundance sometimes breeds its own special kind of futility, whether one thinks of parking spaces or government budgets.

In the world of humanitarian and development assistance, more money certainly buys more stuff such as more medicine, more food, and more fuel. However, more money does not necessarily translate into getting more done, and sometimes it has the opposite effect.

Consider these examples from Afghanistan as told by Major Clare O’Neill, a combat engineer from the Australian Army who is currently at Georgetown University’s Center for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Studies as a visiting Fulbright scholar. In 2006, a drought that ravaged Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan, received attention from a well-known NGO. The NGO funded the Provincial Director of Education’s management of the provincial delivery of food. Local food distribution was to be done through schools, thus incentivizing school attendance. Empowering the local leader to run the project seemed wise at the time because of his local knowledge. However, unknown to the NGO, the local Provincial Director sold the food on the black market in Kandahar, pocketing the proceeds. O’Neill explained, “A few boxes of food were kept by the Provincial Director at the boy’s high school for the obligatory photo shots when required. In 2006, people in Uruzgan were genuinely starving, and many died as their weakened bodies did not survive the winter months.” Damning further still is the fact that when the funding body was informed of the failure to distribute the food, they “insisted that it had been distributed and explained they had a report from the Provincial Director” confirming the food’s delivery.

As second example of poorly managed aid, a contractor from Kabul arrived at the Tarin Kowt Hospital to build an ablution block while, at the same time, Afghan government officials in Kabul approved an NGO project to build toilets in health facilities throughout Afghanistan. The combined lack of consultation and limited physical space created a problem. The proposed ablution block site was the same site where the hospital mortuary was to be built. Further confounding the location of the ablution block was its proximity to a well and the women’s hospital. Ignoring the wishes of the hospital staff, the contractor built the block. Once completed, photographed, and reported back to Kabul, the locals then destroyed the building in order to make room for the mortuary. According to O’Neill, “The ablution block project reeked of top-down good intention and an organization standing in front of a map of Afghanistan with pins to place. The toilets were a demonstration of a project with a set number outcome and outsider’s version of a golden solution. Back in Kabul, the quantitative measure of effectiveness of toilets built was a delusional success.”

Sometimes, however, things do go well. O’Neill noted that, in the Uruzgan Province, the Afghan Health Development Services (AHDS) provided health care, which was run by Afghanis and funded by western donors. With staff based in Tarin Kowt, the AHDS empowered the Principal Doctor to make on-the-ground decisions regarding health priorities with community consultation. As O’Neill explained, “The key to success was the professionalism and foresight by the Principal Doctor.”

In 2006, health facilities in Uruzgan Province were dilapidated, and its services were poor. From 2006 to 2010, AHDS, working with the Provincial Reconstruction Team, expanded and made health care more accessible. “The total number of active health care facilities in the province increased from 9 to 17 over that period. The number of health posts doubled to 200, and community health workers (CHWs) increased from 130 to 300, of whom 100 were women,” O’Neill explained.

All in all, big budgets can never replace good practice informed by local knowledge. With people on the ground, better choices can be made. As O’Neill argues, in insecure settings deemed too dangerous for aid agencies and NGO’s, the best local knowledge comes through the military. More broadly, Mary Anderson’s mantra of “Do No Harm” sets the bar too low. We need something better than that: consult, plan, and spend wisely and locally while at the very least doing no harm.

I offer this not as a rationale for doing more with less, but rather as a warning. Ambitious and large missions can sometimes replace wise planning and problem solving with poor practice. Cuts to humanitarian and development assistance create real obstacles to getting good work done, yet poorly conceptualized, badly managed, and faulty implementation of projects equally threatens the effectiveness of aid. Or as my Australian friend observed, “An empty car park is no excuse for bad driving.”

Reposted from the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs blog

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No Longer a Middle Power, Australia becomes a Short Power

contorted policyAustralia announced a shift in policy saying that refugees arriving by boat will no longer be processed in Australia.  With the move to deny refugee status to people crossing the Timor Sea Australia has surrendered its hard fought for middle power mantle to become a short power.  How did this change of stature come about?

At the conclusion of World War II Australia supported the creation of the United Nations as a bulwark against conflict and chaos.  Under the leadership of Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt Australia played an important role in authoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The Preamble to the Universal Declaration articulates the relationship between respect for human rights and a peaceful international order:

… disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

… it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law….

Since that time Australia has slowly but surely removed domestic affronts to human rights by dismantling the White Australia policy and embracing multiculturalism.  The recognition of native title and eradication of the principle of terra nullius deepened Australia’s commitment to human rights.  Internationally, granting Papua New Guinea independence further demonstrated Australia’s commitment.

Never a major power and physically isolated from the centers of global population and economy Australia nonetheless envisioned for itself an international role as a middle power.  As a middle power Australia embraced international institutions such as the United Nations, sought multi-lateral and peaceful solutions to global problems and developed niche specialties in peacekeeping and international aid.  The oft-mentioned description of Australia punching above its weight became the sine qua non of Australian foreign policy.

Australians could look at their country with pride, taking a noble place among democracies by enshrining the values found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into law.

Unfortunately, however, the grubby world of grubby politics now dominates.  With the decision to no longer process refugees landing on Christmas Island Australia has turned its back on a proud legacy.  Now refugees coming to Christmas Island will have their cases processed while they wait in Papua New Guinea.  Further insulting the values ensconced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights those refugees will not be offered a place in Australia, but rather Papua New Guinea.

The beautiful mountains and bountiful natural resources in Papua New Guinea stand in contrast to the grinding poverty and physical adversity of the place.  Papua New Guinea already experiences difficulty in caring for its own citizens, much less refugees from far away.  Make no mistake about it this policy has the intended purpose of intimidating those who would come to Australia in this way.  Papua New Guinea, a former Australian colony, has succumbed to the policy for no other reason than keeping Australia happy.  Apparently, the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea is still a colonial one – parent to child, rather than one of equals.

This is a policy aimed at the heart of Sydney’s western suburbs.  Once safe Labor seats seemed destined for the scrapheap in the coming election.  Hard-hearted voters, who are no worse off for refugee arrivals in Australia, have turned their backs on fellow human beings.  Backbench Labor MP’s have joined them so that they may continue to enjoy the fruits of their pleasant lives as elected representatives.  Meanwhile, frightened, displaced and now forlorn men and women cower in camps waiting to discover what will come of them.

Then Prime Minister Keating’s words from another time may well be applicable here:

However intractable the problems seem, we cannot resign ourselves to failure – any more than we can hide behind the contemporary version of Social Darwinism which says that to reach back for the poor and dispossessed is to risk being dragged down.

Is Australia unable to extend a helping hand to those who ask for it?  Or, is Australia simply unwilling?  Surely upholding the principles of international law and international agreements will not so heavily tax Australia that it cannot manage.  Should Australia really turn its back on people who seek help?  Perhaps this might be a time to remember Prime Minister Keating again, should Australia not ask “…how would I feel if this were done to me?”

Once a middle power, sure of what was right and proper, Australia has given way to baser impulses.  Now, Australia has contorted itself into a short power.  Bellicose language and empty threats echo across the seas, threatening would be refugees: “come if you dare, we’ll show you.”  Indeed, Australia shows us, do you like what you see?

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Nice Teeth

Geo Washington's denturesHaving lived on three continents over the course of my life I conclude that Americans have the best teeth.  Go anywhere in the world and find the person with the straightest, whitest teeth, and you will have found the American.  They may look disheveled dressed in ugly t-shirts, may be loud and boorish or just hideously overweight, but look in their mouths and you will find exceptional teeth.  US claims of “we’re number one” apply equally to Olympic medals won, total weapons exports, tonnage of bombs dropped and orthodontic splendor.  If terrorists captured an international flight and wanted to separate the Americans for special treatment they would simply ask passengers to show their teeth.  It would be a dead giveaway.

Attractive American teeth come from the hard work of the country’s oral beauticians, also known as orthodontists.  I’ve only experienced orthodontists once, but if it’s any indicator of the business bonanza I can see why so many Americans have great smiles.  I took my son to the office where it runs with military precision.  The automated check-in process greeted us with more personality than many receptionists provide.  My son’s appointment was at 11:15, and precisely at that time his name was called, a compact woman with lovely teeth ushered him to the orthodontic chair.  In machine gun-like rapid succession the clinical inspection, treatment, payment and follow-up appointment was completed in exactly twenty-five minutes.  When we got into the car I forgot to ask him about his appointment and instead bored him extolling the virtues of the orthodontists efficiency.

Americans haven’t always had beautiful teeth.  It has been falsely suggested that George Washington wore wooden dentures.   President Washington may have been first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, but he was also likely the first American with hippopotamus dentures.  The National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, Maryland, displays the General’s dentures to some 10,000 visitors a year.  Slaves were not the only African imports for the General.  With such expensive dentures he might have smiled, but apparently he didn’t, not even when accepting Lord Cornwallis’s surrender after the last battle of American Revolution.

Think back on photos from the 19th century and one thing every portrait shares in common is the dour look of the subject.  Nobody smiled.  Could life have been that bad?   Unpopular amongst photography subjects, big broad toothy grins only began to break in the 20th century.  The one noteworthy exception was Teddy Roosevelt. His teeth entered politics well before he came to national prominence.  In 1895 Roosevelt became New York City’s Police Commissioner, and launched a crusade to clean up and professionalize the corrupt and incompetent police service.  His honest and forthright manner attracted many supporters, but his teeth won the day.  A reporter for New York’s The World observed,

… he shows a set of teeth calculated to unnerve the bravest of the Finest. His teeth are very white, they form a perfect straight line.  The lower teeth look like a row of dominoes.  They do not lap over or under each other, as most teeth do, but come together evenly. …. They seem to say: Tell the truth to your Commissioner, or he’ll bite your head off.

Roosevelt’s teeth also become political fodder for his opponents.  A cartoon that failed to satirize his teeth was not worth the paper on which it was drawn.

Teddy lived the strenuous life, until he turned sixty when apparently life became too strenuous.  What was the cause of his untimely death?  His teeth, of course.  Roosevelt, so it was suggested, had suffered an infected tooth for some years, which erupted into full-blown sepsis, ending in a fatal embolism.  Today, dental historians – yes, dental historian, something to which your child might aspire – dispute the infected tooth claim.  In the end, Roosevelt’s teeth made him what he was – dead – and started an American love affair with the perfect smile.

If perfect teeth mark the American, then I am a stranger in a strange land.  Growing up I never had braces, so my teeth fail to meet exacting Yankee standards.  In fact, over the years an eyetooth – Chester as my wife calls it – has shifted out of line, becoming prominent in its displacement.  My misaligned teeth also have a mottled yellow-grey appearance coming from my jaundiced view at birth (a view which persists to this day).  In moments of self-doubt I have consulted dentists about changing my dental appearance.  The discoloration of my teeth cannot be erased, but a porcelain veneer on my front teeth, and an invisible plastic braces shifting my teeth can make my smile anew.

Fortunately, these moments don’t last long and I think of more constructive things to do.

In the 1990’s my wife and a friend, neither of whom were American and had the teeth to prove it, joined me in founding Cyber.consult an Internet skills training company.  Today Internet skills training sounds like learning to masturbate while doing email, but in the 1990’s it passed for legitimate business.  We used to terrify our students with our toothy grins while training them on the basics of web browsing.  Cyber.consult’s lowest moment occurred while explaining to a student how to navigate the web only to be met with stunned silence.  When I asked the man why he wasn’t following my instructions to “place his mouse over the hyperlink” he stared at me as if I were insane.  I tried several versions of the same instruction, but none worked.  In frustration I asked him he wasn’t doing as I asked, to which he replied, “What’s a mouse?”

Orthodontia exploded following World War II, which explains the purpose of that particular global conflict.  Whole generations of Americans embraced the dream of straight teeth.  George Washington’s shame at wearing dentures had been vindicated.  Perfection of American teeth places them apart from the hideous teeth of their once-colonial masters.  The British can have their kings and queens and cups of tea, but look at their teeth.  A frowning Lord Cornwallis had his military band play “The World Turned Upside Down” while surrendering to the Americans.  Cornwallis may have frowned over the outcome of the American Revolution, but Americans turned that frown upside down and have the smile to prove it.

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