Monday, December 25, 2006

A conservative foreign policy: The thinking of one of the world's longest-serving democratic leaders -- John Howard

Conservatives are guided by circumstances and basic values rather than ideology (See "Inside Right" by Britain's Ian Gilmour) and Australia's Prime Minister embodies that well. One summary below from a journalist who has monitored Howard for many years

When John Howard came to power 10 years ago he was a foreign policy amateur, yet imbued with deep foreign policy attitudes, and the story of the past decade is how he revised his policy but kept his attitudes untouched. There is a multitude of criticism of Howard's foreign policy but little analysis of what he tried to achieve, a bizarre omission.

The answer to this question is that Howard aspired to give effect to his foreign policy attitudes. Rarely articulated in his early years, such attitudes have always been the key to his policy. From the start Howard believed that the US would grow only more influential in the world and that our bond with the US was a prized national asset, an unconventional view at the time. He believed the foreign policy establishment was wrong in its reliance on a faltering multilateralism and that the UN's utility had been exaggerated. He saw foreign policy as being about state-to-state relations and was sceptical about regionalism, whether in Europe or Asia.

Howard believed that Japan was our best friend in Asia, China was our greatest opportunity, Indonesia was a flawed giant that should not monopolise our attention and Israel should be defended for its values and its history. He believed that globalisation was a golden moment for Australia, that a strong foreign policy depended on a strong economy and that Australia's world reputation would be determined by the quality of its economy and society, not by moral edicts from the human rights industry.

There was never any grand plan to Howard's policy. It was a case of trial and error and, at the start, there were many errors. But Howard had a framework. He sought an ongoing synthesis between realpolitik or the national interest and being a values advocate seeking a populist domestic affirmation for his foreign policy. It was a task loaded with tensions. And what were his values?

For Howard, Australia is part of the Western liberal tradition. He assumed no conflict between our cultural heritage and our Asian geography. He presented himself to the region and to the nation as a cultural traditionalist and asserted that this was the foundation for Australia's relations with the world. It was his deepest instinct and a break from Paul Keating. It meant Howard's Asian engagement was based on shared interests and different values.

Values became the instrument Howard used to tie foreign policy to domestic politics, a technique he refined with more success than any PM since R.G. Menzies. It was on display in Howard's judgment that Asia's financial crisis confirmed the superiority of British-derived systems of governance (such as Australia's) and his unswerving belief that 9/11 was an attack not just on the US but on the liberal values that Australia also embodied. Yet such cultural rigidity was often the cause of trouble; witness his appeasement of Hansonism, his rhetoric on regional pre-emption and his miscalculation in allowing theUS "deputy sheriff" line such oxygen.

Howard is best grasped as a foreign policy response agent. He is a classic counter-puncher. He saw foreign policy not as an exotic art form but as an exercise in professional political judgments. His distrust of much academic foreign policy analysis was visceral. The world altered fundamentally on Howard's watch, presenting him with vast opportunities not available to many of his predecessors.

Consider these changes: the Asian financial crisis decisively altered regional views in Australia's favour; the China boom reached an intensity that compelled far closer bilateral ties; the demise of president Suharto led to a democratic Indonesia and the chance to change East Timor's status; the arrival of George W. Bush and the 9/11 attack enabled Howard to realise his goal of a closer strategic nexus with the US; and the failed state syndrome in the region saw Howard reinterpret Australia's role as a regional leader. He was ever an opportunist.

The most contentious of his decisions was his realignment towards the US. This was radical because he embraced the revolutionary Bush doctrine in the invasion of Iraq (though Howard unlike Bush was never a revolutionary) yet remained traditional in that Howard upheld the unbroken Australian practice of going to war alongside the US. Howard's view of the alliance is based in long-range calculation. He is convinced of two things: that in 100 years the US will remain the pre-eminent global power and that Australia gains far more by being closely associated with the US rather than by keeping its distance. Staying aloof from Iraq would have defied Howard's values, instincts and character. It was never going to happen.

The Iraq legacy, however, is unavoidable, a debate about whether in the 21st century a new alliance bargain is needed that rejects Australia's automatic participation in US-led wars, given Australia's growing neighbourhood and regional responsibilities. It was tempting at stages over the past decade to think that Howard and Alexander Downer were trashing the Australian foreign policy tradition. Tempting but false. With a decade's perspective it is apparent they have altered priorities and adapted policy to radical new events (it would be amazing if this had not happened) but that they did not change the underlying strategic basis of Australia's policy.

This is apparent from Howard's 1996-97 decision that sound relations with China were necessary for a successful foreign policy, his acceptance ofAustralia's entry into the East Asian Summit, his successful engagement with a changing Asia defined by an assertive Japan, a democratic Indonesia, an emerging India and a China whose power is transforming theregion. It was tempting a few years ago to argue the essence of Howard's policy was realignment towards the US. But this is no longer accurate. The essence of Howard's policy is obvious: to move closer to the US and Asia simultaneously. This reflects the Australian tradition.

Howard's main legacy as a pro-US conservative leader may become the entrenchment within the Liberal Party credo of a pro-China stance. This reflects an independent Australian perception of China, different from the US's, along with an optimistic belief in Australia's ability to reconcile its US alliance and its China engagement.


Update: I should have noted that well-known American conservative Russell Kirk also stressed that conservatives are guided by circumstances and basic values rather than by any ideology. The Gilmour book I quoted seems to be out of print but Gilmour was a prominent Conservative in the British parliament. He was in fact at one time Lord Privy Seal under Margaret Thatcher.

Dame Edna's Christmas message

Every year as Christmas approaches my phone rings and, more recently, my Blackberry bleeps. "It's Lil," comes the girlish yet cultured voice. It's a voice I wish Julia Gillard would at least try to emulate when someone tells her that Labor Party is two words. "Lil" is, of course, the Helen Mirren lookalike Lillibet, my friend, the Queen. Sometimes I wish the monarch would not lean on me so heavily or seek my advice and nurturing about practically everything.

"Do you think it might happen next year?" asks the anxious yet assured voice. I know she's referring to the republic. Poor lamb, she has been praying for Australia to become a republic for years, and so have all the other royals. She hates the trip out, the boring speeches and the grovelling wives of our rough-hewn politicians and civil servants. I have to disappoint her. "Royalty has never been more popular, Lillibet," I tell her, bluntly yet tactfully. "Princess Mary of Tasmania is regarded as a saint, and her face on the cover of women's magazines sells almost as many copies as yours."

"Princess who?" she queries, with that wonderful sense of humour that Rolf Harris' portrait abysmally failed to capture. "Help me with my message to the nation PUL-EESE Edna!" she begs, and I know by the way she says "pul-eese" that Kath & Kim is a big favourite on the home entertainment system at Balmoral.

Naturally, I agree to write her Christmas message for the umpteenth time, but I think to myself: What about my message to Australia? Shouldn't that be my priority. With the Queen on the phone I'm struck by a brilliant idea that could make the New Year a landmark in troubled Anglo-Australian relations. I recall my mother telling me that during the war, our home in Moonee Ponds was a Fat for Britain depot. All the neighbours used to fill old jars and tins with dripping and we shipped it off to England. It was an Australia-wide campaign and tonnes of the scrumptious congealed fat deposits from the Sunday roast went across the oceans to nourish our pale and famished Pommy cousins.

Occasionally, a Jap torpedo intercepted the precious shipments, and I believe there are still nooks and crannies of the Pacific bearing a historic dripping slick: the greasy residue of a million roast lamb, potato and five veg Sunday lunches. We never got a word of thanks for all that dripping, and I even heard that a lot of people in England threw it away in disgust just because there might have been a few bits of charred parsnip embedded in that wholesome Australian fat.

So when the Queen asks me what I want for Christmas I think - typically - of the needs of others. "What we need is water Lillibet - and lots of it! Could you organise a Water for Australia campaign? Your subjects could leave bottles and other receptacles at Buckingham Palace. I will arrange collection at this end. It doesn't even matter if it's grey water from English nursing homes. We can use it to make Earl Grey tea," I add whimsically but wittily.

The Queen loves the concept. "Done deal, Edna! I'll fire off a royal command pronto and you'll be flooded by the response. The British love Australia, particularly icons like you, Rolf, Bindi, Kylie and Tassie's Brant and Todd." For a woman who, apparently, hasn't even heard of Princess Mary, the Queen then shows that she has her finger on the pulse and her ear to the ground in other respects.

"Will Shane and Simone get together again?" she enquiries caringly. "And Schapelle. Will she be publishing another riveting volume of her memoirs?" Above all, she anxiously asks: "Has that nice Naomi Robson saved little Wah-Wah yet? Or will he be replacing the turkey and mince pies at his family's Christmas dinner in New Guinea?"

I put down the phone, a bit tearful and emotional. It's a long time now since my husband Norm passed away and I recall our last Christmas in his private suite at the Dame Edna Memorial Prostate Foundation. Together we decorated his ducting with holly and fairy lights. My wonderful new mega-production, Back With a Vengeance, is dedicated to Norm's memory and I want to take this opportunity to invite all of those brave firefighters and their loved ones to be guests at my show. It's a tiny token of gratitude for their bravery and dedication. I wish all of my possums everywhere a joyous Christmas and a very wet New Year.



By Bettina Arndt

The battle was supposed to be won more than 30 years ago when the women's movement pushed for the right to make informed decisions about their health care.... Women emerged determined to no longer be passive recipients of over-medicalised health care, particularly during childbirth. But those of us old enough to remember those days are blown away by what's happening in today's obstetric care.

Recently a 50-something Sydney midwife spent a few days working in a Sydney private hospital. She was amazed that of the 30 to 40 new mothers she cared for, only a handful had vaginal births and many chose elective caesarean with no medical indication. How can so many women have been hoodwinked into thinking that a caesarean is the best option for them and their babies?

What's happened is the doctors have been burnt. There have been some major payouts for medical negligence over cases where it was argued obstetricians should have done a caesarean, or done one sooner. The result is obstetricians are fast losing the skills to handle the difficult cases.

This all gives the impression that caesareans are a safer method of delivery, for women and their babies. Yet, a recent French study suggested caesarean delivery more than triples a woman's risk of dying in childbirth compared to vaginal delivery. Luckily these risks are small, but they rise significantly with each caesarean. These babies are more likely to suffer respiratory distress; labor prepares babies for breathing by massaging respiratory organs and aiding elimination of mucus from their systems.

Yes, there are horror stories but many women are being conned into thinking caesareans offer an easy way out. Even the broken coccyx I experienced during my son's natural birth was nothing compared to the ordeal of recovering from my two caesareans. For every mother on the internet claiming the caesarean was a breeze, there are others talking of horrible post-surgery pain, the problems looking after a new baby with a painful scar, difficulties with healing, long-term complications.

It's hardly surprising there is evidence caesarean births mean mothers are more likely to have early parenting difficulties and post-traumatic stress. Yet our caesarean rates are soaring. The caesarean rate hit close to 30 per cent in 2004, increasing to 38 per cent for women in private hospitals, according to figures released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. If these figures keep rising, it may spell the end of normal vaginal births. There simply won't be the skilled obstetricians or midwives available to help if the going gets tough.

And more mothers and babies will die as a result. Countries like Brazil, which have already gone down that route, are showing increases in maternal and child mortality. In affluent areas of Brazil, there are hospitals with more than 80 per cent caesarean rates. Across Australia, maternity hospitals are already feeling the strain, as elective caesareans add to the burden on theatres, surgical and nursing resources.

Women contemplating elective caesarean, without good medical reasons, need to understand the risks to themselves and their babies. The majority of Australian women believe women's bodies were made to give birth without a knife.


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