Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tony Abbott

Obama’s Asia Policy Flounders

Thanks to some bold rhetoric and high-profile visits over the past years, Barack Obama’s Asia policy has by and large been seen as a bright spot in his foreign policy. Compared to the disastrous failure to anticipate or contain the Islamic State, the flatfooted response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his Hamlet-like indecision over whether or not to intervene in the Syrian civil war, and his Pollyanna-ish belief that negotiations will really prevent Iran’s mullahs from building nuclear weapons, Obama’s Asia policy has appeared both relatively constant, if not proactive. Obama initially got kudos from the Washington policy community for announcing his so-called “pivot” to Asia, and his Department of Defense has pushed ahead on plans to increase the number of ships and planes in the region. The president visited Asia on high-profile trips to major regional gatherings, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement finally looks like it may actually be completed. By contrast with the rest of his foreign policy, Asia didn’t look too bad.

Read More

Thanks to some bold rhetoric and high-profile visits over the past years, Barack Obama’s Asia policy has by and large been seen as a bright spot in his foreign policy. Compared to the disastrous failure to anticipate or contain the Islamic State, the flatfooted response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his Hamlet-like indecision over whether or not to intervene in the Syrian civil war, and his Pollyanna-ish belief that negotiations will really prevent Iran’s mullahs from building nuclear weapons, Obama’s Asia policy has appeared both relatively constant, if not proactive. Obama initially got kudos from the Washington policy community for announcing his so-called “pivot” to Asia, and his Department of Defense has pushed ahead on plans to increase the number of ships and planes in the region. The president visited Asia on high-profile trips to major regional gatherings, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement finally looks like it may actually be completed. By contrast with the rest of his foreign policy, Asia didn’t look too bad.

There always was doubt among the more skeptical, even if many of us welcomed a deeper focus on Asia. But if some recent articles are anything to go by, the bloom is off the rose for Obama’s Asia policy, and its underlying weaknesses are now becoming painfully apparent. I’ll leave aside the question of whether the “pivot” (or “rebalance,” as the administration likes to call it) was ever much more than a large dollop of rhetoric, with little substance behind it. I’ll also pass on discussing whether Obama’s overall weak foreign policy has possibly contributed to the resurgence of Chinese assertiveness, if not coerciveness. Instead, there are two specific issues that point out the stumbling of Obama’s Asia policy.

Among the greater accomplishments claimed by Obama’s administration is the “Burmese Spring” that resulted in the loosening of authoritarian military rule by Burma’s junta and the 2010 release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The U.S. lifted long-standing sanctions against the Burmese regime in 2012, and eagerly trumpeted the country’s slow move towards democracy. On Sunday, The Washington Post put paid to the idea of Obama’s Burmese success. Criticizing the White House policy as “failed engagement,” the Post headlined what many Asia-watchers already knew: that the administration was ignoring continued and blatant human rights violations, the strengthening religious discrimination, the imprisonment of journalists, and the preventing of Suu Kyi from being able legally to run for president in this year’s elections. All this has been ignored while the administration has given the Burmese junta hundreds of million of dollars in aid. The point is that, like the Russian “reset” or negotiations with Iran, Obama appears satisfied with the public relations spin that ignores reality until stubborn facts intervene. In this case, it means that the message is sent that a fake liberalization can reap enormous benefits from the credulous Americans.

The second piece of evidence on the missteps of Obama’s Asia policy is the little-known issue of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). This is arguably a far more serious failure to understand and react to a major foreign initiative than the Burmese example. In 2014, the Chinese government proposed a $50 billion lending institution for the region. The AIIB is inescapably an alternative to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, both of which are guided by Western financial principles and ensure the influence of Washington or allied nations, like Japan. As the biggest shareholder, founder, and guiding spirit, China most likely will dominate the AIIB, and thereby increase its economic and political influence even more in Asia.

The founding of the AIIB might not have been such a big deal, but for the Obama administration’s ham-fisted response. In trying to pressure nations not to sign on as shareholders, Obama has revealed just how little global influence he has. Not only have most Asian nations signed on, but America’s main allies, including Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy have joined, as well, ignoring U.S. pleas to stay out. The Financial Times charitably called Washington’s abandonment by its allies a “blow” to US foreign policy. But with the news that stalwart U.S. ally Australia has also joined, veteran and respected Australian commentator Greg Sheridan scathingly destroys the fiction of American standing in Asia, writing that Canberra’s decision represents a “colossal defeat” for Obama (the article is behind a pay wall, but excerpts are here).

Why has Washington fallen on hard times in Asia? In Sheridan’s view, Obama is reaping the results of years of “incompetent, distracted” diplomacy that has left his administration with “neither the continuous presence, nor the tactical wherewithal, nor the store of goodwill or personal relationships” to carry anyone along with it. As if to underscore Sheridan’s analysis of Obama’s diplomatic crudeness, which includes a reminder that Obama personally insulted Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott with a “rogue” climate change speech at the G-20 in Brisbane last year, Washington accused London, its closest global ally, of “constant accommodation” of China, after its decision to join the AIIB. Such is the petulant, panicked response of an administration that has failed to understand, anticipate, analyze, and respond to changes that will reshape Asia’s financial landscape.

Now with South Korea considering joining the AIIB, Washington will be left isolated only with its ally Japan as new regional financial relationships are created. Ultimately, either Obama or his successor will likely bow to reality, and find a face-saving way to join the AIIB. Yet it will be clear to everyone in Asia, as well as Europe, that the United States was outplayed by China and forced into an impotent, reactive role.

The changes roiling through Asia may seem less dramatic than those occurring in Europe or the Middle East. Yet they are just as transformative, and their effects will unfold for years. Whether Washington wakes up to its diminishing role in Asia, and acts materially to reverse the decline, will be but one test of its ability to maintain its global role in the coming decades.

Read Less

Is the International Consensus on Jerusalem Fracturing?

Today much of Israel’s capital Jerusalem is regarded by the international community as “illegally occupied territory.” In fact ever since the Jewish state’s establishment some sixty-six years ago no country has fully recognized Israel’s claim to Jerusalem; not one has an embassy in the city. Yet the consensus against the Israeli presence in north, south, and east Jerusalem has become more robust in recent decades. Prior to the onset of the Oslo peace process, not only was the position of the United States far from clear on this matter, but even far-left Israeli groups such as Peace Now were adamantly insisting that Jerusalem would remain the rightfully undivided capital of the Jewish state. After some two decades of negotiations it might be said that Israel’s legitimacy in general, and its claim to its capital in particular, have both been greatly weakened.

Yet now it would appear that there has been a radical and bold break with the international consensus: Australia has announced that it will no longer refer to East Jerusalem as “occupied territory.” Tony Abbott’s government has put out an uncompromising statement of intent, informing the world that, “The description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem is a term freighted with pejorative implications which is neither appropriate nor useful. It should not and will not be the practice of the Australian government to describe areas of negotiation in such judgmental language.” This announcement is made all the more significant on account of the fact that back in January Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop publicly disputed the notion that Israel’s settlements should be considered illegal either.

Read More

Today much of Israel’s capital Jerusalem is regarded by the international community as “illegally occupied territory.” In fact ever since the Jewish state’s establishment some sixty-six years ago no country has fully recognized Israel’s claim to Jerusalem; not one has an embassy in the city. Yet the consensus against the Israeli presence in north, south, and east Jerusalem has become more robust in recent decades. Prior to the onset of the Oslo peace process, not only was the position of the United States far from clear on this matter, but even far-left Israeli groups such as Peace Now were adamantly insisting that Jerusalem would remain the rightfully undivided capital of the Jewish state. After some two decades of negotiations it might be said that Israel’s legitimacy in general, and its claim to its capital in particular, have both been greatly weakened.

Yet now it would appear that there has been a radical and bold break with the international consensus: Australia has announced that it will no longer refer to East Jerusalem as “occupied territory.” Tony Abbott’s government has put out an uncompromising statement of intent, informing the world that, “The description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem is a term freighted with pejorative implications which is neither appropriate nor useful. It should not and will not be the practice of the Australian government to describe areas of negotiation in such judgmental language.” This announcement is made all the more significant on account of the fact that back in January Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop publicly disputed the notion that Israel’s settlements should be considered illegal either.

The move by the Australians couldn’t have come at a more sensitive time. Just as Canberra is breaking ranks with the international consensus that opposes the Israeli presence in eastern Jerusalem, that consensus is itself hardening. In recent days both the United States and the European Union have mounted vocal protest against Israeli plans to build new homes in existing Jewish neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem. This is an astounding response that exposes the full extent of the hostility toward the Jewish state that emanates from both the EU and the Obama administration. For while the newly formed Hamas-backed Palestinian government has received endorsement from both the White House and the Europeans, building homes for Jews in the ancient Jewish holy city of Jerusalem has provoked a degree of condemnation out of all proportion with reality.

The State Department has said that it is “deeply disappointed” by these moves and the U.S. ambassador to Israel has also expressed words of protest, but typically the Europeans have gone much further still. A statement from the EU demanded that Israel reverse this decision and even alluded to the threat of sanctions in retaliation for this “settlement activity.” In response the Israeli government claimed to be “mystified” that “there are those in the international community who claim that construction in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, and in other places that the Palestinians know will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any future arrangement is a step that we must reverse.”

The double standards displayed by diplomats who can at once welcome a move that brings an internationally recognized terrorist organization into coalition with the Palestinian Authority, while at the same time condemning the building of homes for Jews in Jerusalem, may be disgraceful, but sadly it is anything but mystifying. For years now–ever since the Camp David talks of 2000–Israel has been expressing a willingness to give up large parts of its capital, including some of Judaism’s most historic and holy sites, despite the fact that Israeli law fully considers all of Jerusalem sovereign Israeli territory.

If Israelis have not been willing to vocally and uncompromisingly assert their rights to their own undivided capital before the court of world opinion, then it is hardly surprising if those who don’t have much love for the Jewish state have taken this as a cue to further delegitimize Jewish rights in Jerusalem. Both the Europeans and the Obama administration insist that they are friends of Israel, but if Israelis want to know what real friends look like then they can look to Stephen Harper’s government in Canada and now to Tony Abbott’s in Australia. The decision to no longer refer to East Jerusalem as “occupied territory” is a bold and brave move that displays a degree of moral clarity that one could barely imagine coming from Obama’s State Department and certainly not from London’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Ideally, the move by the Australians will be repeated by other governments, but if nothing else it calls into question the attitude in Europe that holds the illegality of the Israeli presence in north, south, and east Jerusalem to be an open and shut case.

Read Less

Gaza Conflict: A View from Down Under

Colin Rubenstein, the director of AIJAC based in Melbourne, Australia, appeared Friday on the Australian Broadcast Corporation’s (ABC) News 24. Australia’s ABC takes a political slant much like that of the BBC, but Rubenstein’s description of the reason for and logic of the Israeli military campaign is about as articulate as it comes. It is worth the watch.

It’s also well-worth noting that not only Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition and the head of the center-right Liberal Party, but also Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is decidedly left-of-center, have endorsed Israel’s right to self-defense and roundly condemned Hamas without any moral equivalence. It is good to see that, at least outside the United States, many liberals and progressives recognize just what is at stake.

Colin Rubenstein, the director of AIJAC based in Melbourne, Australia, appeared Friday on the Australian Broadcast Corporation’s (ABC) News 24. Australia’s ABC takes a political slant much like that of the BBC, but Rubenstein’s description of the reason for and logic of the Israeli military campaign is about as articulate as it comes. It is worth the watch.

It’s also well-worth noting that not only Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition and the head of the center-right Liberal Party, but also Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is decidedly left-of-center, have endorsed Israel’s right to self-defense and roundly condemned Hamas without any moral equivalence. It is good to see that, at least outside the United States, many liberals and progressives recognize just what is at stake.

Read Less

Australians: Climate Change vs. Economics

Today the Australian Parliament blocked a cap-and-trade bill, which has been one of the pet legislative projects of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. This is a good example of the choice lawmakers across the world are facing — whether to favor strong economic policy or strong climate-change policy. And at least in Australia, the majority of policymakers have sided with business. Leaders across the world would do well to take note of Australia’s domestic climate-change debate as they pack their bags for Copenhagen.

“The right time for an emissions trading scheme is when the rest of the world is signed up for one and that way all the economies will labor under the same emissions constraints,” said Tony Abbott, whose skepticism on climate change helped him displace opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull. He also said, “I am very happy to see the Australian Prime Minister cut a big figure on the world stage, but we aren’t going to damage the Australian economy to serve Kevin Rudd’s ego.”

Abbott is right, and the climate-change-policy advocates face one key impediment: while economic realities are undeniable, climate-change concerns remain nebulous (especially given this week’s Climategate). Nations can hardly be expected to charitably submit to a big economic disadvantage. So countries and politicians can’t be blamed for addressing their more certain interests first. Read More

Today the Australian Parliament blocked a cap-and-trade bill, which has been one of the pet legislative projects of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. This is a good example of the choice lawmakers across the world are facing — whether to favor strong economic policy or strong climate-change policy. And at least in Australia, the majority of policymakers have sided with business. Leaders across the world would do well to take note of Australia’s domestic climate-change debate as they pack their bags for Copenhagen.

“The right time for an emissions trading scheme is when the rest of the world is signed up for one and that way all the economies will labor under the same emissions constraints,” said Tony Abbott, whose skepticism on climate change helped him displace opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull. He also said, “I am very happy to see the Australian Prime Minister cut a big figure on the world stage, but we aren’t going to damage the Australian economy to serve Kevin Rudd’s ego.”

Abbott is right, and the climate-change-policy advocates face one key impediment: while economic realities are undeniable, climate-change concerns remain nebulous (especially given this week’s Climategate). Nations can hardly be expected to charitably submit to a big economic disadvantage. So countries and politicians can’t be blamed for addressing their more certain interests first.

Since last year, Australian business has called the cap-and-trade bill “a company killer.” The Business Council of Australia examined 14 companies and determined that at least three would close altogether if the cap-and-trade bill passed, and two more might soon follow. It also cited research claiming that companies’ pre-tax earnings would suffer by 22 percent on average. The Australian populace seems to be listening; according to a recent Lowy Institute poll, climate change has fallen to their seventh foreign-policy priority.

But the climate-change lobbyists have done an especially laughable job of addressing economic concerns, especially after the defeat of the cap-and-trade bill in Australia.

Tim Hanlin, chief executive of Australian Climate Exchange, frets that businesses are “now back in the dark” and will struggle to make investment decisions “with no certainty about the carbon price.” But Mr. Hanlin misses the point that the very policy he endorses is the problem, not the solution. Australian businesses aren’t timid about investment itself; they’re justifiably hesitant to invest when they face crippling taxes and restrictive government policy.

Likewise, John Connor, CEO of the Climate Institute, said: “The defeat of [the Australian cap-and-trade bill] is a not only a stumble for Australia doing its bit on climate change, it is an economic stumble, and a competitiveness stumble for Australia. The low-carbon train is leaving the station around the world and Australia is haemorrhaging investments in clean energy industries and technology to competitors in developed and developing countries.” Connor should consider: if low-carbon industry is really as significant an economic boon as he believes, if it really is so surprisingly efficient, if it will really save money and create jobs — shouldn’t it be able to compete even if government doesn’t cripple its rivals?

The climate-change lobby will have to do a better job of defending their position than they’ve done today. At least in Australia, those most ardent about climate change are not enough of a majority to ram bills through the Parliament. They need the support of the moderates and the conservatives — the very groups Rudd and his followers have alienated with their polarizing language. So these same climate-change-policy advocates must now turn to persuasion and honest debate. That promises to be difficult. The urgency of the climate-change message has, thus far, been more easily paired with emotion than rationality.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.