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Published in CRIKEY.COM 10 SEPTEMBER 2013

The art of conducting a successful foreign policy is to have an intelligent, mature and sophisticated person as foreign minister. To this end Malcolm Turnbull should be given the job. The foreign minister conveys the messages Australia wishes to send to the international community. The manner in which those messages are conveyed is important, so image is an important tool in the knapsack of a foreign minister.

Believe it or not Australia’s international image has taken a hit in recent times. It’s no good putting out the message that Australia is a just and fair country and the greatest thing since sliced bread and then detaining refugees indefinitely as ASIO has done, apparently in order to secure the support of the Sri Lankan government in stopping boats.

The UN Human Rights Committee recently identified 143 violations of the UN Human Rights Convention with respect to these refugees being held in indefinite detention. They referred to their treatment as cruel, inhumane and degrading. These findings do not go unnoticed or unremarked in the international community.

Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison found nothing amiss when they visited Sri Lanka recently; however the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Nari Pillay, did. She identified what many people have known for some time, which is that Tamils continue to be treated as second class citizens in the country of their birth and many are being persecuted. She said that the actions of the regime in Sri Lanka were undermining the rule of law and that democracy was being eroded. For this reason the Canadian government will not be attending the CHOGM in Sri Lanka later in the year. In order to minimise her possible involvement in controversy the Queen will also not be attending.

Indications of an early visit to Indonesia by the Australian Prime Minister are to be welcomed. Full and frank discussions are unlikely to occur, that is not the Indonesian way of doing business. Under these circumstances it would be wise to get some briefing and coaching on how to read Indonesian body language and the nuanced method of conveying information. The conduct of regional foreign policy does not require boxing gloves.

All Regional and Pacific Heads of State should be treated with the greatest of respect. The impact of Australian decision making should be carefully assessed on fragile political systems, economies and egos.

The long term viability of refugee policies with respect to Manus and Nauru, not to mention the refugees should be very carefully weighed. Bombast has no place in the making and conduct of foreign policy.

The instinct of not intervening in Syria is sound. Already with the delays caused by uncertainties in the US political system, talk amongst the major players has begun. It might be considered wise to get the UNGS talking through the good offices of Australia’s Presidency of the UNSC, it might surprise what other suggestions and compromises might emerge. Consider the possibility that President Assad may be little more than a figure-head, kept in place by mutually beneficial arrangements between powerful competing forces within the ruling party. He may in fact not be in a position to deliver on undertakings.

The new brand of American foreign policy to shoot first and ask questions later must be resisted. It is not good for our friendship with the US and it does little to promote friendships within the wider international community. We should be using our time on the UNSC to find the middle ground, particularly now with our presidential responsibilities.

Our relationships in the Middle East need to be better tuned and more even handed, particularly with respect to Palestine and Israel.

We can use our time on the UNSC to seek better international policies toward the treatment of refugees and we can pursue an agenda that seeks the strengthening of international law particularly with respect to multinational companies seeking to evade tax.

Australia should seek to reduce the prospect of a regional arms race. It should develop a relationship with China independent of the agenda and pressure being applied on us by the US.

Our concerns for the environment, global warming, protection of fisheries and whales should be firmly and reasonably put. This is a combined prime ministerial and foreign minister responsibility. Australia needs to be taken more seriously than just in the world of sport; however reliance on Australian sport to deliver international prestige would be a risky undertaking on recent past performances.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.

Published in CRIKEY.COM 3 SEPTEMBER 2013

The American Administration seems determined to carry out a punitive attack against the Assad regime for the latter’s alleged use of nerve gas against Syrian civilians, this despite the British parliament voting against support for such a course of action. Spooked, Obama is now seeking the approval of Congress, which may be difficult to obtain.

The French President, Francois Hollande, is seeking armed intervention but says France will not act alone.

Faced with the choice of using force or diplomacy to resolve international tension, America, over the past twenty years or so, has chosen force, or fifty years, if Vietnam is seen as a starting point for American armed intervention.

American diplomacy has evolved into a vehicle for the promotion of force as a primary tool of handling international problems. It has been captured by the military establishment and the political fixers of Congress and the Administration to lobby for and sell the notion of armed intervention as the ultimate tool of American diplomacy. The power of dialogue, networking, influential connections and on the ground information gathering has been subsumed by a belief that outcomes favouring the United States can best be achieved by electronic surveillance and the use of force.

The United States President, Barack Obama, claims the moral authority to attack select targets in Syria because of the use of nerve gas, legitimately described as a weapon of mass destruction. This moral authority is diminished when set against his administration’s use of drones over the past six years in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen that have killed as many if not more civilians, including women and children, than the Syrian nerve gas attack.

Obama’s ‘solution’ is bereft of imagination and subtlety. It is a frustrated and angry response from a tired and diminished superpower, intent on demonstrating that it still has the strength to determine international outcomes. On past performance a US attack on Syria, however much is claimed for weapons capable of delivering pay loads with surgical precision, civilians are likely to be victims.

If a punitive attack, which has been referred to as a shot across the bows, fails to deter the Assad regime from further nerve gas attacks on Syrian civilians, does the US then up the use of force and if so by how much? This is poor strategy, one fraught with danger and one which the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan appear already lost or not taken on board. It also carries with it the possibility of conflict spreading in the Middle East with Israel looking for an excuse to attack Syrian ally, Iran.

There is no doubt that the cruel attack on innocent civilians by the Assad regime is worthy of the strongest condemnation and sanction. As a course of action before the use of force was contemplated the matter should have been brought before the UN General Assembly. The revulsion over this attack by the international community could then be demonstrated to the Syrian regime and its backers, Russia and Iran, by what would likely be the vast majority of delegates. This would provide leverage for further combined UN action.

Obama has criticised what he terms the ‘incapacity’ of the UN Security Council over Syria. However part of that incapacity is due to the Administration’s desire to act unilaterally and to be seen to be doing so in order to enhance its role as an international peacekeeper and policeman. The United States has little respect for the UN and its agencies.

It has spent the last week trying to tie ‘friendly’ heads of state into its proposed course of action. There has been no mention by the US of seeking to work through the UN for a possible solution. Critics of the UN and those favouring a direct US attack are quick to cite the ineffectiveness of the UN, however undermining and by passing the organisation creates self-fulfilling outcomes.

The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has been approached by Obama. Rudd has not taken the Australian people into his confidence, but apparently he has made all the right noises to Obama. Nor has Rudd taken into his confidence the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. The professionals are less than pleased.

All the more so that, as from yesterday, Australia assumed the Presidency of the Security Council. Australia is lucky to have Gary Quinlan as Australian Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN and as a result of these appointments he is the new President of the UNSC. Quinlan, an experienced and intelligent diplomat, is unlikely to blanch at accepting the challenge of responsibilities thrust on him by the difficult situation in Syria, a US Administration giving short shrift to the UN and a change of government in Australia.

With Quinlan occupying the Presidency, it is a unique opportunity for Australia to demonstrate some creative leadership of the UNSC. It is open to the new President to refer the issue of Syrian transgressions to the UN General Assembly which would allow the type of debate outlined above.

The Australian Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, likely to be Prime Minister after the election on Saturday said, on the ABC Insiders program on 1 September and repeated on the ABC 7.30 Report on 2 September, that he did not favour an armed response along the lines being mooted by the US Administration.

After Saturday he might seek to give Quinlan the brief he needs to demonstrate Australian leadership and diplomatic mettle. Such leadership might help get American out of the bind it has created for itself and force a measure of respect for Australia hitherto lacking in the bilateral relationship.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.

“A Spy in the Archives”, Sheila Fitzpatrick, MUP, 2013

This book is an enjoyable read on a number of levels. The author, Sheila Fitzpatrick, achieved first class honours from Melbourne University in 1963 with the thesis, “Music and the People in the USSR”. She observes that the custom in those days was for Australians graduating with first class honours and wishing to undertake postgraduate studies was to head to Oxford or Cambridge. Within that custom was the requirement to have the financial means to support those studies. Fitzpatrick secured a Commonwealth Scholarship and was offered places at Oxford and LSE. She chose the former placing herself under Cold War Sovietologist, Max Hayward, who had translated Dr Zhivago.

She was one of a handful of women in 1964 to attend St Antony’s College, an institution alleged to have close ties to the British intelligence community. She claims that she went to Oxford in 1964 ready to be disappointed and she was; Oxford was not in the business of teaching its postgraduate students rather it was a matter of hanging around and absorbing the atmosphere.

Her respect for Max Hastings gradually evaporates with the realisation that he is an ideologue on the side of Russian intellectuals and émigrés who are essentially anti-Soviet. And this is where the book is really interesting. Fitzpatrick comes from the intellectual position of wanting to find out what makes the Soviet Union tick. She is neither pro nor anti Russian, seeking to establish the essential truth or truths within what she comes to discover is an intriguingly complex and Byzantine state, beginning with her quest to access the archives of the USSR.

I must confess some personal interest, having studied the Soviet Union in my honours degree at the University of Western Australia, 1968/71, under the absurd subject heading, ‘Communism, Fascism and Democracy’ and further within units of International Relations. UWA was divided ideologically between Cold War warriors who, despite or perhaps because of the war in Vietnam, went all the way with LBJ and romantic Russian loving soft lefties, who over many drinks referred to each other as comrade. At that time I looked in vain for the insights and analysis of the Soviet Union afforded us by Fitzpatrick in this book.

Fitzpatrick notes that St Antony’s seemed to think that Soviet history could be written on the basis of diplomatic and intelligence gossip without source work and in conjunction with political bias or more sympathetically, moral judgement.

At one level Fitzpatrick allows us to see a somewhat retiring and lonely young woman coping with the somewhat arch and homosexual world of Oxford, alienated both intellectually and physically from her fellows and her quite steely ambition and toughness of mind to not only get herself behind the Iron Curtin to Moscow but into the closed world of Soviet archives in order not only to achieve a higher degree but more importantly to satisfy a strong intellectual curiosity concerning the history and essence of the state.

It is here that the book is played out at another level, that of the personal relationships she develops to satisfy her academic and intellectual needs which because of her single mindedness are one and the same. Importantly she does what many young diplomats and some foreign correspondents fail to do, she sought out, cultivated and became friends with people who were important to her getting source material for her project, which in effect was her job.

Her doctorate topic was, ‘Lunacharsky as Philosopher and Administrator of the Arts’. Anatoly Lunacharsky was Peoples Commissar (Minister) for education and the arts from 1917 to 1929 at which point he had fallen foul of Stalin. Some research was possible in the UK but the most important aspect, Lunacharsky as an administrator, was possible only from the archives in Moscow.

The trials and tribulations of obtaining a ten month British Council scholarship and a visa for the Soviet Union are many but are overcome with innovation, grit and determination. Fitzpatrick departs in mid 1966 for what turns out to be a twelve month stay.

Her research prior to departure indicated that Lunacharsky’s younger brother in law, Igor Stats was alive and living in Moscow. He was an editor of the literary journal Novy mir, much beloved by Western liberals. Stats had written about Lunacharsky in terms that appealed to her; she also ascertained that Irina Lunacharsky, Anatoly’s daughter was also living in Moscow and was the keeper of her father’s reputation and principal salesperson of his memory. She made up her mind to meet them, she did, and they changed her approach to her thesis and her life.

Fitzpatrick draws on her diary, letters to her mother and other friends to provide not only the framework for the book but also the flavour for her memories. We see Moscow of 1966 through her initially tremulous eyes and as the year progresses and after she meets and makes friends with Igor and Irina her increasingly confident eyes.

The pitfalls of entrapment and blackmail engineered against foreign students by the KGB are considered and discussed with fellow students and friends and the hazards, thrill and kindness of love in the Soviet Union is discussed and analysed. Fitzpatrick does at one stage become a person of interest to the KGB and a Russian lover, Sasha, sees a promising career vanish likely as a result of their affair.

Her feckless Soviet supervisor and Lunacharsky specialist at Moscow University, Alexander Ovcharenko, does her the great favour of changing the title of her PhD to, “Lunacharsky as People’s Commissar, 1917 – 29”, which gains her access to state archives. However party archives remain closed to her. Ovcharenko becomes peripheral to her studies as Stats gradually moves to the centre of her life and studies.

Fitzpatrick learns to read reviews in Novy mir by cracking the code of Aesopian language under the tutelage of Stats. She explains that an Aesopian point is made not directly but by analogy, as in Aesop’s fables. She says this subterfuge had a long history in Russia going back to Alexander Herzen’s “Kolokol” in the 1860s. It is a ploy used in most police states by intellectuals and writers opposed to the regime.

Fitzpatrick is obliquely outed as a ‘spy’, or as she says quasi-spy, in “Sovetskaya Rossiya”, a conservative and vitriolic mouth piece for elements within the communist party. Through her very close association with Stats she is party to the pressure applied on Novy mir and the eventual breakdown in relations between the courageous chief editor, Alexander Tvardovsky, and the dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Although it is deemed prudent for her not to meet Tvardovsky she nonetheless provides perceptive insights into this tightrope walking intellectual. Tvardovsky and Stats were friends and drinking pals; they held the intellectual position of seeking to reform the Soviet system rather than engineer its collapse that so many dissidents and émigrés worked towards. Novy mir was banned in 1970.

Fitzpatrick describes further travels to the Soviet Union in 1968 and 1969/70, the latter after her doctorate was awarded. The Russian scholar, Leonard Schapiro, of the London School of Economics was an examiner at her viva. She felt he thought she had written her doctorate from a Soviet position. Eleven years later they had a falling out over a review of a later book she had written, where Schapiro was far more direct in his accusation of pro-Soviet bias.

It seems to me to accuse Fitzpatrick of that is to miss where she is coming with respect to the Soviet Union before its collapse. The monolithic view of the government of the Soviet Union was one favoured by the CIA, Maggie Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and John Howard.

This book provides an insight into Aesopian nuances, checks and balances, provided through inefficiencies and arbitrariness, and the wasteful diffusion and dissipation of power in the Soviet Union, saved only by the KGB and the threat of the Gulag. The book undulates seamlessly through the various layers Fitzpatrick has laid down to illustrate her emotional and intellectual journey into the many personal and historical archives she researches and explores.