Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Downer Shows His Age

Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer obviously went to school at a time when realism was the norm as evidenced by this article. He makes an outdated arguement and obfuscates some points.

Downer's argument is that Australia is not just a "middle power" but a relevant and important player on the world stage and that Australians should be proud of such. To back up his point he reverts to realist measures of power such as economy, population, land size. He also notes military prowess but only through anecdotel evidence such as our role in East Timor and our role in the "coalition of the willing". He notes that our economy is ranked 12th in the world, our land mass is sixth largest in the world, and notes even "our weakest measure, population ranks us at about the top 25% of the world's nations.

Apart from the fact that realism is no longer considered a relevant IR theory for explaining the current world, we can also see that the information is misleading and/or weakly argued. The first measure of the economy, as being in 12th place - as every Australian (should) know(s) - represents a decline in Australia's economic world rankings over the past years. Our overall economy has lost ground and at the industrial level this is also pronounced with some of our key industries such as steel, sugar and others (I'm guessing coal, and other agriculture products but am less certain on the state of these) where we ranked top or near top in the world but have declined over time relative to other economies. This is not a strength, this is cause for concern. As for land and population, aside from being outdated measurements of nation's power, our land is largely uninhabited and desert and "top 25%" in terms of population would appear to be middle power status to my mind.

However, apart from the inappropriate theoretical application and archaic measures of national power applied by Downer, the underlying arguement of this article is contentious. He suggests that Australia should stand up and be counted as a bigger-than-middle-power and insinuates that to think of Australia as less than a big player is to not be proud of Australia. He states:
The tendency to regard Australia as a second-class state infects baby boomer members of the commentariat, although thankfully most Australians, especially the young, remain uninfected.

At its most extreme, the "little Australia" phenomenon leads to weird kinds of self-disgust. But Australia's foreign and trade policy is more surely based on a grasp of our traditional roots in Western civilisation, our distinctiveness as a people and considerations of the interplay of national interests and our global responsibilities.
Well, I have a big beef with this sentiment. Firstly, to be a middle-power is a great thing and in no way does being a middle power infer that Australia is a second-class state. The link that being middle ranked is akin to second-class is unjustified. His comments on the sentiments of young people and of baby boomers is an over-generalisation and out of line.

I'd like to know what he means by "wierd kinds of self-disgust". I can't comment on that since I don't understand what he means but I'm pretty sure I disagree.

When it comes to our "achievements" in foreign policy he notes our use of the military in pushing for peace. He states,
Not only do we refuse to apologise for our values and beliefs, we will help those in our region and beyond who aspire to the freedoms we enjoy. This has occurred, for example, through our continuing nation-building efforts in East Timor, our work to help Iraqis rebuild their country, free of tyranny and oppression, and through our engagement in dialogue on, and advocacy of, human rights.
I'll steer clear of the East Timor and Iraq debates but I just wanted to put in a reminder that Australia's own human rights records towards aslyum seekers and indigenous Australians is not really anything to boast of and hardly gives us the right to pontificate to others. Particularly with asylum seekers we can notice that the policy is that those who aspire to the freedoms we enjoy better not try to enjoy them on our land.

Australia is really a beautiful and wonderfully lucky country with so much going for it. It has much to do yet to improve on aspects of human rights and environment and other areas at home and it does have a key role to play on the world stage. However, that role is as a proud middle power, which we are, will probably always be, and should be grateful/happy to be. As a middle power country we have wealth, political freedom (except for Pauline Hanson who we threw in jail), access to world markets, and a competitive and vibrant economy. This is no longer a realist's world, and rather than taking stock of hard power we should be considering more carefully about our place in the new world of ad hoc international alliances, and economic interdependence. I think its a good thing it is to be an stable middle power in a world of failed states, ethnic and civil clashes, and terrorists.

Currently reading:

"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui