Personality politics, democracy and a multi-polar world

A short article about the Australian Labor Party’s internal woes, but the headline caught my eye: Closing the chapter on personality politics.

As I’ve contended elsewhere, personality politics seems to thrive when the democracy sees itself in a relative vacuum, with no great pressing issue other than who prevails in the domestic realm. This was true in the 1990s in the US, following the end of the Cold War. This has been true in Australia in recent years, with the non-stop catfight between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard occupying center space in Labor and federal politics.

A rough entry for the current Liberal government headed by Tony Abbott may ensure that the era of personality politics draws to a close sooner, rather than later. It’s not that Abbott and gang are above the fray, either. Rather, the issue of geopolitical order is reasserting itself as a primary concern. Not only have Abbott’s kind words for Japan raised eyebrows in China and domestically (China, Australia’s biggest two-way trade partner, has a long memory for slights) but now the fracas with Indonesia about turning back refugees has emerged. That stand-off, which has ended with Australia, not Indonesia, blinking, comes only months after the Liberals came to power. It also comes before a presidential election in Indonesia. But what has really stirred the pot are the disclosures of Australia’s involvement in snooping on Indonesian affairs in conjunction with the US, through the Five Eyes intelligence agreement.

In other words, issues much bigger than personality politics.

In its own way, Snowden’s legacy may be to help refocus the world’s attention on who is allied with whom, creating embarrassment and tension among neighbors, particularly at a point when the geopolitical order is being upset by the rise of Asia.

Baddies vs Baddies in Syria – with China and Russia looking on

Australia’s opposition leader (running for prime minister) has gotten flack for describing the Syrian war as baddies vs baddies and being circumspect about any role for Australia. Yet, it’s a reflection of the new realty the west faces, argues Hugh White. Underpinning this realization is the economic reality, of a more powerful set of BRICs nations – that is Brazil, Russia, India, China. If the US and UK saw the Syrian conflict against the backdrop of weak global competitors, calls for action would be more strident. Instead, it is the recognition that the conflict is baddies vs baddies. And two of the biggest countries on the UN Security Council (China, more powerful, Russia, clinging to power) guaranteed to stand up for the interests of Bashar Assad. But as the leaders of China and Russia would certainly agree, sometimes you just have to murder your citizens by the thousands (or going back to the 20th century, tens of millions) just to stay in control. Worth noting also that Germany, which has a larger stake in a secure Syria than the US, has vowed not to get involved. Anyway, this is the new reality, US and UK. Draw up the moat bridges. There are lots of baddies out there. And the US, would be wise to stay out of Syria, as it was wise to stay out of Spain in 1936.