Friday, October 11, 2019

Today by Russell Marks


Litmus test
The US withdrawal from Syria is a turning point for Australian foreign policy

Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks

In 1990, Donald Trump famously told Playboy: “We Americans are laughed at around the world for losing $150 billion dollars year after year, for defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the earth in about 15 minutes if it weren’t for us.” Trump has for a long time believed the United States is “overcommitted”, and has often expressed a desire to end the nation’s role as leader of the liberal internationalist order it pioneered after World War Two.

President Trump’s withdrawal of troops from north-east Syria this week is consistent with views he’s held for at least three decades. Despite that, the world did not expect it. The US had been supporting its Kurdish allies in the region against Daesh since at least 2014.

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, typical of the kind of authoritarian strongman Trump most admires, has wanted to invade northern Syria for some time, ostensibly to protect Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK), which Erdoğan sees as a terrorist organisation. That invasion was effectively green-lit by Trump’s withdrawal, and Erdoğan has already issued threats and warnings to other countries to refrain from condemning Turkey.

Among those nations is Australia, whose prime minister, Scott Morrison, is no doubt among the world leaders most discombobulated by Trump’s troop withdrawal. That’s not just because Australia has a general interest in the region’s security and in preventing the inevitable humanitarian catastrophe. It’s even less because there are more than 60 Australian women and children in the al-Hawl refugee camp in the region: Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is notoriously unsympathetic to so-called former Daesh brides and has already cancelled at least one woman’s citizenship.

Morrison’s discombobulation is also due to what Trump’s troop withdrawal represents. Australia has relied on America’s de facto leadership of the international order for 70 years. During that time, no other independent nation has so blithely and consistently aligned its own interests to the US. As the US embassy in Australia proudly declares on its website, the Battle of Hamel in July 1918 marks “the beginning of the first 100 Years of Mateship”.

Morrison’s expression of concerns for the humanitarian consequences of the Turkish invasion – amid rising civilian deaths and refugee numbers – and his musings on whether Australia will participate in international sanctions against Turkey were met with a sharp rebuke by Turkey’s ambassador in Australia. Overnight, Morrison directed Australia’s ambassador in Turkey to urge Erdoğan to halt the invasion. These diplomatic interventions echo warnings by Trump himself who, despite knowing about Erdoğan’s plan to invade, and facilitating that plan, nevertheless wants the world to accept he doesn’t support it.

The Trump presidency was always going to a litmus test for Australia’s foreign policy. Trump’s provocation of a trade dispute with China leaves Australia awkwardly downplaying the potential for further escalation between its largest trading partner and its greatest military “partner” – a term that inadequately describes Australia’s relationship with the US.

During a speech in Sydney yesterday, the Netherlands’ centre-right prime minister, Mark Rutte, urged Australia not to follow Trump into retreating from the international order, as Morrison has hinted at since returning from the US last month. Instead, Rutte believes middle powers can have a major role in reforming and strengthening the institutions of that order – much like the role they played when those institutions were established following World War Two.

So, beyond the urgency and the pending catastrophe of the situation in northern Syria, the American troop withdrawal is the latest moment in time for Australian foreign policy – a moment that will see Australia either pivot towards greater independence and a renewed commitment to internationalism, or slide into even deeper sycophancy with its not-so-great, if powerful, friend. The early signs aren’t good.


“Everybody should be worried that a representative of academics on the university’s governing board has taken the extraordinary step of speaking out, and as a result, the public university has tried to not only silence him but sue him for damages.”

National Tertiary Education Union WA secretary Jonathan Hallett on Murdoch University’s decision to sue associate professor Gerd Schroder-Turk for blowing the whistle on international student standards and causing what Murdoch describes as “reputational damage”.

“A particularly good edition of the Spectator Australia this week. Among the reads: various pieces on the disturbing cult of youth, and particularly the cult of Greta Thunberg. But Neil Brown’s warning on the new apartheid planned by the racist Labor Government of Victoria is truly frightening.”

Andrew Bolt spruiks the right-wing magazine.

The luck and the chutzpah
As the Liberal Party slides further on climate change, the Labor Party fights an internal push to abandon its platform.

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The amount The Block host Scott Cam is being paid as Australia’s “national careers ambassador”, unknown because skills and employment minister Michaelia Cash says it’s “commercial in confidence”. It’s unlikely to be as much as the $3 billion Labor says the Coalition has cut from vocational education since 2013.

Australia’s treasurers met today to talk about ways to bring forward infrastructure spending to jump-start Australia’s economy – an idea Josh Frydenberg is open to, now that his tax and spending cuts, as well as his pursuit of budget surpluses, have stalled growth.

The list
 

“Shirley Hazzard was the first Australian writer I read who looked outwards, away from Australia. Her work spoke of places from which I had come and places to which I longed to go. It conjured cities and rooms: sociable spaces. Yet what she had to say was expansive, not enclosed – I felt enlarged by it, my view widened. It was reading as an affair of revelations and gifts. It fell like rain, greening my vision of Australian literature as a stony country where I would never feel at home. Splendour had entered the scene.”

“Extinction Rebellion organisers are taking the time to build capacity and confidence, and are adapting the organisational culture to their specific contexts. One of the people they’ve turned to for training and mentoring is Nicola Paris, who has been running the grassroots training organisation CounterAct for more than five years. ‘Direct action and civil disobedience works,’ she says.”

“The apparent unity ticket between the Morrison government, the Labor opposition and the broader labour movement in support of increasing compulsory superannuation contributions must surely rank as one of the stranger recent cases of strange bedfellows. Not only because bipartisanship is increasingly rare in Canberra, but also because each holds a position that appears entirely counterintuitive.”

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

 

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