Fiddling While It Burns

A different kind of war

18/10/2010
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Here’s a project I did for radio journalism. I think the biggest failure of the news media around Afghanistan is not giving interested generalists an understanding of the strategies and realities, instead preferring to sensationalise and trivialise, so I’ve tried to cover some of the basics of counterinsurgency, a doctrine central to understanding what’s happening in Afghanistan right now.

A different kind of war


Painted Into a Corner

09/07/2009
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Things have gotten crazy with China.

Wait... what happened? Photo: AAP/ Dave Hunt, via ABC.

Wait... what happened? Photo: AAP/ Dave Hunt, via ABC.

The Rudd government has faced criticism for its close relationship with the Chinese government from the start. Kevin Rudd’s facility with Mandarin was an important factor in making him look like a modern alternative to the Sino-phobic John Howard in the 2007 election, but in government it was clearly a double-edged sword, with the Coalition quickly implying that Labor’s loyalties might lie a little too close to Beijing. It first became an issue through Joel FitzGibbon’s foolishness, and has been potential political dynamite, particularly when it comes to state-owned Chinese companies buying Australian mines.

Look at this photo. It is a truly great photo. You can see in (Australian Foreign Minister) Stephen Smith’s eyes that he suddenly sees exactly where everything is going.

From the ABC:

Detained Rio exec accused of spying

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith has revealed that an Australian employee of the mining giant Rio Tinto has been arrested in China on suspicion of spying.

It seems – seems – like this is some sort of fit of pique on behalf of some part of the Chinese government, a retaliation for the rejection of advances to buy a stake in Rio Tinto.

From The Sydney Morning Herald:

Last month the miner turned its back on a long-running courtship from the state-owned company Chinalco, and is presently engaged in tense iron ore price negotiations.

Barnaby Joyce certainly thinks so – from ABC Radio National’s PM program:

The Nationals leader in the Senate, Barnaby Joyce, says he believes that the failure of the state-owned Chinalco to buy an 18 per cent stake in Rio Tinto could be behind the arrest….

BARNABY JOYCE: Well we know that four of them worked for Rio. We know that they disappeared in Shanghai. We know that they’re held by an arm of the Chinese Government. The reason for them being held, we don’t know. We know that we’re failing to get proper diplomatic access to them, to Mr Stern Hu. And what we can deduct is that there’d have to be a relationship between Chinalco’s failure in its purchase of Rio and the ramifications that go beyond a state-owned enterprise all the way to the Chinese Government.

That all these state-owned enterprises and the Chinese Government itself or the Communist People’s Republic of China’s Government, is one and the same and ramifications to one is ramifications to all.

BRIGID GLANVILLE: So what makes you think there’s a link between Chinalco and its battle to buy a stake in Rio Tinto?

BARNABY JOYCE: Well I suppose I only have to look at the blog sites after the bid failed and to realise and that there was an immense well of feeling held in china. They felt that they’d been personally slighted. But of course even these personal slights are scripted via the Chinese Government and the Chinese Government I think we shouldn’t confuse with the Chinese people. But what we should acknowledge is that the direct ownership of state-owned enterprises by the Communist People’s Republic of China is part of the same plan.

All investments overseas go through a central organising authority to where they’re going to purchase overseas and that the disappearance of these four people, one of whom is an Australian citizen, if it’s nothing to do with Rio, then why can’t we get diplomatic access to them and find out exactly what’s going on.

Australia has always been caught in China’s gravity well to some extent, but the People’s Republic meteoric rise over the last decade became a crucial part of Australia’s prosperity. The choice of the Rudd government (and the more grudging choice of the Howard government) was to embrace this rather than resist it. However, now Labor is learning the disadvantages of a realist foreign policy – that is, if you abandon principle, you are no longer protected by it. When your best friend the expansionist totalitarian empire starts acting like one, no one can feel too sorry for you.

Labor is caught between a rock and a hard place. They must either try and exert some leverage to force the Rio Tinto employees’ release (which would likely fail miserably while causing an enormous and expensive international rift), or do nothing and brave the wrath of an Australian electorate who already thinks they are giving too much ground to foreigners. This incident makes it clear that, no matter how close Labor might consider their relationship with China, the Chinese government is running its own agenda, and will happily run roughshod over their allies in Australia if it suits them.

If you’ve ever had a falling dream, you know the sense of horrible inevitability as you wait for your body to hit the ground. That’s the sensation you’re seeing when you look into Stephen Smith’s eyes.

Of course, there’s always the chance that the four Rio Tinto employees were actually stealing state secrets – a possibility that Stephen Smith will be desperately hoping for right now.


Playing chicken with the lives of others

21/06/2009
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From The Sydney Morning Herald:

No rush to placate North Korea

Hamish McDonald

June 20, 2009

There are several countdowns going on in North Korea, all of them related to the survivability of Kim Jong-il’s regime. One is to a deployable nuclear arsenal, with the markers being the test explosions of plutonium bombs (two so far) and firings of the three-stage missiles intended to carry the warheads.

Another is to the leadership succession, following Kim Jong-il’s reported stroke last year, his gaunt reappearance and the apparent nomination of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as heir apparent.

A third is the largely overlooked rundown of North Korea’s food stocks. According to some analysis from Seoul, supplies of food staples for most of its 23 million people will run out by the end of next month, and for the regime’s nomenklatura a month or so later.

 This article nicely sums up a game that’s been going on for a long time. Basically, the West (here including South Korea and Japan) has all the leverage it should need over North Korea: the nation starves to death or grinds to a halt not long after they stop feeding it and supplying it with oil. The only cards North Korea holds are nuclear brinksmanship and a potential first strike on Seoul or Japan, and the lives of its peasantry. Between one and the other North Korea has managed to get what it needs to keep going for two decades after the end of the Cold War.

The combination of unwillingness to starve millions of North Koreans, and unwillingness to risk major regional destabilisation, such as a Korean peninsula at war (and the millions of lives a North Korean first-strike could easily cost), has meant that North Korea can offer to unload the gun when it’s in dire straits, as it did last year when it appeared to be accepting some extent of de-nuclearisation when harvests were low,  then never actually follow through, as this year when it refused access to agreed-upon observers and followed up with nuclear and missile testing

The Obama administration is playing hardball right now, refusing to concede to North Korea’s demands:

Neither Washington nor Seoul is rushing to placate the North Koreans. “I’m tired of buying the same horse twice,” the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said. Meeting Lee Myong-bak this week, Obama said he would end a “cycle” in which North Korea created nuclear crises to win food, fuel and other concession, before inventing excuses to start again. “This is a pattern they’ve come to expect,” Obama said. “We are going to break that pattern.”

Calling North Korea’s bluff is a dangerous game. Obama is proposing to corner the regime; no one is yet sure how Pyongyang will react. They will certainly sacrifice millions of North Korean lives to starvation before yielding. We can assume that if Obama is still willing to sabre-rattle like this, he has reliable evidence that the North Koreans have yet to weaponise their nuclear capabilities, but conventional forces are more than enough to destroy Seoul.

The moment of reckoning may seem to be coming with North Korea, but it’s seemed to come every year or so for the last decade. We’ll have to watch and see whether it actually comes this time.

Iranian protests continue

The first genuine massacre of protestors has been reported from Iran. Barack Obama has issued his first statement firmly supporting protestors. Not sure which happened first.

The situation definitely needs a light touch – the Iranian regime would love nothing more than to have an outside agent interfering right now. If Obama had called for regime change two days ago, the conservatives would have ordered everyone mowed down in the streets, and still retained their legitimacy in the eyes of a significant proportion of the population. By couching this purely in the terms of human rights, and only then after a massacre, Obama is showing the support Iranians need without giving the regime the excuse it wants.

How far this ‘green movement’ goes really depends on the regime itself; the protests might die nonviolently if left to run for a few weeks. However, it’s become pretty clear that the hardline conservatives must now choose between an Islamic Republic slowly evolving toward a freer society, or spending the rest of their lives fighting the turning of the tides with the blood of innocents, before a final defeat. True men of religion would choose the first option; on the other hand, true men of religion would have dedicated themselves to pursuing religion within themselves, not using paramilitaries to beat it into others, so I suspect the latter option is more likely.


Electoral fraud in Iran

15/06/2009
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Extremist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has gained a second term in a rigged election in Iran.

Sydney_protest

Iranians protest the faked election result in Sydney. A woman conceals her face; Iranians worldwide still fear potential reprisals from the Iranian secret service. Photo: Salar Niknafs

Why am I so confident it was a rigged election? There are some basic signs. Ahmadinejad was unpopular, particularly overseas, and a large Persian diaspora vote in Iranian elections. His core audience are the hardcore conservatives, who vote in all the elections, so high turnouts should run against him, yet after a record turnout he won. It was no narrow win, which I might have believed – it was landslide territory. Finally, we know it is possible for a reformer to win a large proportion of votes in an Iranian election – in 1997 former Iranian President Khatami gained 70% of the vote, and in 2001 he gained 78% of the vote, with a similar profile to Mousavi’s. For Mousavi to receive less than 40% of the vote is ridiculous. Here is Juan Cole, Middle East expert and Salon.com columnist with some more technical reasoning.

What happens in Iran is of great concern to the rest of the world. The Islamic Republic underwrites and influences both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. It is believed to have a large number of sleeper agents throughout the world, providing a second-strike option in the event of a military intervention in its affairs.  (The loyalty of long-term sleeper agents is questionable, but we’ll take that on face value.) It would be a wonderful thing for world  progress if Iran was allowed to liberalise; it would be a wonderful thing for spirituality if the Islamic Republic realised religion should be chosen, not enforced.

It is unlikely, however, that the election of any reformer could have achieved these things. The elected government in Iran has little power – real power is in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the councils of clerics and judges. The former president Khatami came to office with enormous fanfare and hope for the future, yet after two terms had achieved nothing, resulting in the hopelessness and disillusionment which allowed the conservative rural population to elect the disastrous Ahmadinejad.

This is a tragedy. A new President Mousavi could have dealt with a new President Obama. Both nations, and the world, can only benefit from normalised relations. At the present rate of progress, Israel will attack Iran unilaterally within the year, provoking a regional conflagration that could well end in a nuclear exchange. This is a real setback on the road to Fukuyama’s world order.

What’s surprising to me is that this was allowed. I had assumed Mousavi would win, not out of any faith in the Iranian system, but because the regime understood the true value of democracy to ruling elites: as a release valve for popular ill-feeling, a way to avoid social unrest while not allowing the plebeians any real ability to change things. Look at Australia or Britain – the supposedly social democratic Labor parties have been in power on and off since the 19th century, but they in no way change the fact that those nations are ruled by a plutocracy built on inherited wealth. Democracy is not a cession of power to the people; it is a minor inconvenience that avoids major inconveniences, like revolutions and anarchy in the streets. The very nature of Iranian democracy implies an understanding of this; it seems it’s a machine more complex than the mind of its operators.

I don’t mean to sound like a revolutionary – better to be ruled and live than free and dead. The violence in the streets of Iran should be a lesson, however: let the people rule themselves – if only a little bit.

Violence in the streets of Iran. Photo: AFP - Olivier Mattan-Labei.

Violence in the streets of Iran. Photo: AFP - Olivier Mattan-Labei.

And remember – reform is coming eventually. Better to be a De Klerk than a Mussolini. (Content warning – dead Fascist)

UPDATE: A BBC report and footage of the street demonstrations in Tehran.

Also: I just finished a detailed research essay on the Australian print media’s coverage of refugees arriving by boat in the three months to 9 June 2009, which of course encompasses the SIEV 36 explosion off Ashmore Reef. I’m very happy with how it turned out, I’ll be deciding what to do with it over the next few weeks.


The Media and the Politics of Diplomacy

23/04/2009
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Moments after the handshake, the President began to wonder if he might have caught diplomacy. Photo: HO/AFP/Getty Images, via TimesOnline.

Moments after the handshake, the President began to wonder if he might have caught diplomacy. Photo: HO/AFP/Getty Images, via TimesOnline.

From the CNN blog politicalticker:

April 20, 2009
Posted: 11:20 AM ET

(CNN) – President Obama’s friendly encounter with Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas will be used as propaganda by enemies of the United States, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Monday.

Gingrich, the second high-profile Republican to criticize the president’s now-famous exchange with the Venezuelan leader in as many days, said countries hostile toward America will view the cordial moment as evidence the United States accepts Chavez as an acceptable leader.

“Everywhere in Latin America, enemies of America are going to use the picture of Chavez smiling and being with the president as proof that Chavez is now legitimate that he is acceptable,” Gingrich said in an interview on NBC’s The Today Show.

When Barack Obama won by a massive margin, after having so publicly declared his intention to open dialogues with countries that had been frozen out as America’s “enemies”, I guess I kind of assumed that would just happen, and it wouldn’t be such a big deal.

Manichean media narratives have made diplomacy incredibly difficult since World War II. Since Reagan, it’s been a paradigm of US politics that presidents can’t talk to anyone who’s been designated as a bad guy. Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Libya, the Cold War, Latin American socialists – all these foreign policy challenges have at some point been massively complicated by the US just flat-out refusing to talk to the other party. Ironically, Reagan, whose overblown rhetoric cemented this tendency, was the ultimate hypocrite on the matter – think Iran-Contra.

Foreign policy makers aren’t idiots. They know that no matter how bad the other side are, it’s always more productive to keep talking. The reason they don’t is all about posturing – the thought is that it will play well in the media to be a strongman, whereas no one wants to be a Jimmy Carter. However, over time the American habit of acting against perceived enemies before talking to them has had many very negative results, most notably turning Castro Communist.

Chávez is the ultimate example of the United States making its own enemies. Prior to 2002, he was a populist, yes, and a socialist, but it’s not the Cold War, and Venezuela is no USSR. The chronic problem of South America is the control of massive proportions of resources by tiny elites. The people of Venezuela, 43% of whom were then living in poverty, chose redistributive socialism, in the form of Hugo Chávez. The Bush administraion, however, was run by Cold War stalwarts, and they weren’t about to allow socialism to take root in America’s backyard (wow, that’s some backyard, isn’t it?)

Immediately efforts began to undermine Chávez. In 2002, the Bush administration had at least advance knowledge of, if not involvement in, the attempted coup against Chávez. Afterwards, Chávez was radicalised, leading to a lot of inflammatory statements and an attempt to create a political axis in opposition to Washington.

The change of presidents is a blessing in this case; this is now an enmity which can be undone by simply being reasonable. However, the ballistic conservative reaction to this one small overture shows that the idea of moral absolutism in diplomatic negotiations is not dead yet, and reshaping the way America deals with the world will be  a rocky road.


Thief of a Nation

14/04/2009
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Thief of a nation. Photo: SMH.

No doubt the word Fiji, invoked in the offices of the Department of Foreign Affairs, draws sighs of distress and sharp breaths of horror. A relatively peaceful nation of less than a million should not be keeping anyone awake at night, but two Australian Prime Ministers in a row with designs on global significance mean that a nation oscillating between democracy and military dictatorship on our doorstep is not going to be ignored.

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Australia leads sanction call as Fiji sacks judiciary
Jonathan Pearlman Foreign Affairs Correspondent

April 14, 2009
AUSTRALIA is leading a regional push to oust Fiji from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum after the military regime dissolved the constitution and sacked the judiciary.
The regime has intensified its media crackdown since declaring a state of emergency on the weekend. Yesterday it moved to deport an ABC reporter, Sean Dorney, and two New Zealand television journalists over objections to their coverage. A Fijian television journalist was last night arrested after interviewing Mr Dorney.
Fijian police and government officials have been previewing and censoring the local media, which led to the Fiji Times leaving holes in its Sunday edition and Fiji One cancelling its Sunday night news broadcast.
The Foreign Affairs Minister, Stephen Smith, yesterday branded the regime, in effect, a “military dictatorship” and called for further measures to pressure the military ruler, Frank Bainimarama, to restore democracy. “We have been pushing Fiji to come back into the democratic group of Pacific nations,” he said. “If that require sanctions, so be it.”

By inclination, I am pro-intervention when it comes to human rights. As a young bloke I was so impressed by the Australian Army’s achievements in East Timor, I actually joined the damn thing. However, I am not a believer in the power of sanctions.

Sanctions work well in a media context. They create the appearance of firm action in defence of a people, while costing the sanctioning nation little. For that reason, editorial writers love them – it is very Serious and Responsible to call for governments to Maintain Pressure, and just as Serious to say that military force should not be used. Politicians love them, because they seem resolute and it takes a lot longer than the news cycle will pay attention to realise they don’t work. Sanctions are a lovely halfway point where you can feel like you’re doing something without actually doing anything, like buying a Lance Armstrong bracelet so everyone knows you disapprove of cancer.

Economic sanctions are very nearly within the sphere of consensus. I, however, propose a different standard solution.

One becomes a dictator because one loves power, but one stays a dictator because the Sword of Damocles demands it. Or, if you prefer, once you’re riding the tiger you pretty much have to stay on it. Sanctions lay waste to nations but only make dictators more paranoid, and what’s the only place to be when thousands of people want to kill you? Why, ruling a nation with an army to protect you, of course. We’ve seen from Iraq that war is a worse option than the dictator himself. As much as it outrages anyone’s sense of justice, the best way to get rid of a dictator is to let him get away and enjoy a nice quarter-century of retirement.

Dictators are thieves who steal nations, but as a world-class museum might tell you, some things are so precious that when they get stolen you just have to buy them back.

Cartoon: SMH.

Cartoon: SMH.

Regular readers, were there such a thing, would notice I’ve been delinquent in my posting lately – assignments due. A half-finished post on the Pakistani terror cell is passed out on the floor of my drafts folder, perhaps never to awaken, because rather than conveniently publishing racist stories on the matter, the English tabloids took the interesting route of not even mentioning this quite important story. An hour or so trawling through their websites was interesting, in a horrifying way – it’s kind of like if instead of The Daily Telegraph being Australia’s number one selling newspaper, Picture Magazine was. PHWOARR!!1

Anyway, I’m writing several posts in the evening while I spend a week working. I can’t post from my work computer, so I’ll put them all up at once. Ahhh, science!


North Korea and national aspiration

07/04/2009
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Well, it looks like the “madman” in Pyongyang has won another round of brinksmanship. From The New York Times:

North Koreans Launch Rocket Over the Pacific

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea defied the United States, China and a series of United Nations resolutions by launching a rocket on Sunday that the country said was designed to propel a satellite into space, but that much of the world viewed as an effort to prove it is edging toward the capability to shoot a nuclear warhead on a longer-range missile.

Despite big claims that the Taepodong-2 missile would be shot down, it was allowed to rocket over Japan. Reports at this stage are still conflicting over whether the satellite actually reached orbit; initial stories said it did, as here, but were soon contradicted by official US claims that the rocket actually crashed into the Pacific, payload and all. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant; there is at least a chance that North Korea could have had a payload of unknown provenance whizzing around in low-Earth orbit today, everyone knew it was coming, and the US and Japan did nothing about it, presumably cowed by the perennial North Korean threat to consider things “an act of war”. This says everything about nuclear proliferation – once a nation has successfully tested a nuclear device, it will never be trespassed against beyond certain bounds again.

What I most want to accomplish with this post is to point out how the media allows official views to frame the issue. Orthodox bias plays a big part in how North Korea is reported; note in this NYT article how official government arguments are presented with credulity, and the North Korean claims dismissed.

North Korea failed in its highly vaunted effort to fire a satellite into orbit, military and private experts said Sunday after reviewing detailed tracking data that showed the missile and payload fell into the sea. Some said the failure undercut the North Korean campaign to come across as a fearsome adversary able to hurl deadly warheads halfway around the globe.

The launching itself of the three-stage rocket on Sunday, which the North Korean government portrayed as a success — even bragging that the supposed satellite payload was now broadcasting patriotic tunes from space — outraged Japan and South Korea, led to widespread rebuke by President Obama and other leaders, and prompted the United Nations Security Council to go into an emergency session.

The perspective offered is from “military and private experts”, but no attempt is made to establish independence. There are no independant rocketry experts in the US; if you are working in rocketry you are linked to the Department of Defence, by funding, security clearances etc., yet the NYT feels no need to include more neutral sources – for instance the European Space Agency was doubtless watching closely. Certainly North Korea has every reason to lie about a failed launch and a history of deceiving the international community; I’m sure Colin Powell would love to tell you all about it.

The argument that North Korea cannot have a valid perspective hinges on Pyongyang’s paranoia, and massive military spending while its people starve. Yet consider this: the very fact of tens of thousands of US troops in South Korea, a similar number in Japan, and carrier groups constantly off the coast, proves that North Korea is no paranoiac – the most powerful nations on Earth are actually out to get them. Every inch of the nation is photographed and analysed, every phone conversation spied upon, every action treated as a potential pretext for war.

Of course, you don’t have to reach very far to find an example of a nation treated as benign and indeed virtuous which has similar qualities.

Launching a communications satellite is an extremely reasonable proposition for any nation in 2009, and in a nation-state view of the world is an important aspiration, yet this one was the sonic boom heard around the world. By controlling the sphere of legitimate controversy, the establishment prevents a clear-eyed view of North Korea, and avoids any awkward democratic debates.

I’ll leave you this clip from America’s finest news source.


Chinalco, Rio Tinto and “Keeping Australia Australian”

31/03/2009
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Cartoon: SMH.

Cartoon: SMH.

Well, this darn foreign ownership thing keeps running on ahead of me.  First it was going to be story about Barnaby Joyce and populism, then the story merged with Joel FitzGibbon’s woes and became about Labor’s image problem with China. Then the Chinese-owned Minmetals bid for Oz Minerals was knocked back, presumably because the political heat was now turned up far too high. (It certainly wasn’t based on any substantive issue.) And today, the whole story had vanished from front pages entirely, but took on new life as the ALP began running the line that the Coalition fears the “yellow peril”, linking them with White Australia and Cold War paranoia.

This narrative says a lot about the way national security and strategic issues are covered in today’s news media. In the whole drama, no substantive examination of the issue of foreign ownership of strategic assets took place. Economic nationalism rears its head from time to time, but is so mired in populism and racism that respectable media outlets only report the events so salient they couldn’t possibly ignore them, and much of the coverage is left to business reporters, who aren’t too good at anything but the dollar signs. Foreign investment worries a lot of people, and it deserves proper examination, if only in an explanatory sense, rather than the issue being simply assumed away as part of the capitalist hegemony.

The most important thing about this story, though, is the light it shines on the ongoing tension between Australia’s hopes and fears for our relationship with China. We hope for undreamed-of wealth on a foundation of a wealthy China buying our minerals, and new-found influence and relevance as a mediator between the world’s two superpowers. We fear getting into bed with a brutal Communist dictatorship, or waking up and finding we are owned by greedy foreigners.

These fevered imaginings, however, are almost always subtextual in news reporting, including in-depth foreign policy opinion pieces. No one story connects all the dots, but taken as a whole, reportage on Australia’s relationship with China presents a schizophrenic image of fear and dependance. This is a transitional period in the relationship between Australia and China, and China and the world, and we can expect more of this kind of thing rather than less. The reality, however, is that 1.5 billion Chinese have – and SHOULD have – a much greater voice in the world than 21 million Australians. Foreign policy is one area where there’s no point in pretending things are other than they appear.


Remembering Australia’s soft power

17/03/2009
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The Australian has run an opinion piece today by Lowy Institute Executive Director Allan Gyngell decrying the Rudd government for not giving enough priority to the foreign service:

Nations have two broad ways of shaping the world: by coercion or persuasion. Coercion works when you have effective armed forces and other resources that can deter and, if necessary, defeat potential adversaries or, more subtly, lead others to accommodate your interests. During the past 20years, since the end of the Cold War and even more intensely after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, an international debate has been raging about these instruments of national security policy. In almost every Western country, military forces and domestic security agencies have been reshaped and their roles redefined. Many have received increased funding.

But until recently there has been no similar debate about the instruments of persuasion, the role of diplomacy. This is odd. Military equipment is very expensive (just wait for the defence white paper); diplomats are cheap. The budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is little more than one-twentieth the size of the Defence Department’s $22billion.

Of course defence forces and diplomats don’t do the same things, and both are important. Still, each exists to advance the same national strategy.

The Australian is the last major Australian daily publishing this sort of serious policy thought on a regular basis; perhaps its one-time rivals at the Sydney Morning Herald need that space for the tabloid nonsense that News Ltd prefers to keep in the Telegraph. The Age still maintains some of its air of broadsheet prestige and therefore a bit of depth on the opinion pages, but probably shies away from pieces like this for a rather different reason; it’s a little embarassing for those of us raised in the current liberal arts academy to take seriously the rich white men dispensing sage advice as the masters of the universe. See below for the ethnically diverse rogue’s gallery.

Regardless of the reasons for these serious foreign policy pieces getting less space, however, they remain important to the nation’s future, even a future in a far less nationally-oriented world.

This piece raises some very important questions. Are diplomacy and soft power being given the priority they deserves? Why does Defence, with all its limitations, decisions made on tradition rather than policy thinking, and brutal realities of waste, have guaranteed massive annual increases in funding, while DFAT must scramble for every dollar, when diplomacy starts, finishes, and carries on throughout any mission Defence will ever undertake?

DFAT, like all government departments other than Defence, was severely cut in the 2008 budget in the name of financial prudence and preventing inflation. Now it seems desperately short-sighted to cut such important functions as the Bureau of Statistics, for the sake of slightly increasing the budget surplus in good times, when the challenges to government are technical and multi-faceted as never before.