Friday, February 16, 2007

John Howard should know his place

This piece of mine appears in today's Australian.

The PM should know his place in international affairs
All world leaders, not just John Howard, should stay silent about other nations' democratic elections and candidates


LET'S take a trip down memory lane, back to January 1995. Following Alexander Downer's resignation, John Howard is standing for the Liberal Party leadership for the second time. On announcing his candidature, he is astonished to hear US president Bill Clinton launch a fierce verbal attack against him, warning that a Liberal Party success in the next Australian election would be a victory for the "enemies of the free world".

If you're having trouble remembering the hiatus caused by Clinton's intervention, don't worry. It never happened. But if it had, how kindly would Howard have taken it?

The fact that no US president passed comment on his candidature in 1995 has not deterred Howard from poking his oar into the US presidential race for 2008. According to Howard, al-Qa'ida will be "praying as many times as possible for a victory not only for Barack Obama but also for the Democrats".

Howard's intervention in the American political arena has been defended by Downer on the grounds that "it's a free world and we are entitled to a point of view".
Of course, Howard and Downer - like every citizen of Australia or any other country in the world - are entitled to a point of view regarding next year's US presidential election and which candidate al-Qa'ida would most like to win. (My view is that Osama bin Laden is praying right now for George W. Bush to pass a constitutional amendment and run for a third term.) But there are some solid reasons why the Australian Prime Minister and his ever-loyal Foreign Minister should have kept their views strictly to themselves.

For a start, interventions from politicians and government officials from country A in the election campaigns of country B are usually counterproductive.
Earlier this year a letter from Tony Blair was published in Serbian newspapers: although it didn't name any particular politicians or parties, it made it quite clear that the British Prime Minister wanted the Serbs to vote for a "European future". The British ambassador chimed in, calling for the locals to "support the parties whose leaders share the European vision, who can be Europe's partners. Don't leave the choice to others."
The result: less than 30 per cent of Serbs voted for pro-European Union parties, with the Euro-sceptic and anti-Western Radical Party winning the largest share of the vote. Is it any great surprise that the Serbs didn't take too kindly to being offered advice on how to vote by the country that played such a prominent role in the NATO bombardment of Serbia just eight years earlier?
Last summer the US ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli, labelled presidential hopeful Daniel Ortega a tiger who hadn't changed his stripes.
The result: a decisive victory for Ortega in November's elections.
Polish President Lech Kaczynski openly championed the Opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich in the 2006 presidential election in neighbouring Belarus. The result: Milinkevich polled 6 per cent.
And on it goes.
Call it pride, bloody-mindedness or simple nationalism. The point here is that no one likes to hear a foreign politician pass comment on their country's elections: the natural human reaction on being told by an outsider that candidate X or Y is no good, or will threaten the peace of the world, is to make the domestic voter more likely to vote for them.

Then there is the sticky problem of what to do if the candidate who has been attacked gets elected. Former British prime minister John Major's special relationship with the US was never really that special after it came to light that Major's Tory government had looked into Clinton's student passport records on behalf of president George H.W. Bush during the 1992 election campaign.
Who could have blamed Clinton for not wishing to offer a cigar to a man who did his level best to ensure he would not be elected?
And Howard's damning verdict on Obama could easily come back to haunt him if the up-and-coming senator from Illinois does make it to the White House and Howard goes on to a fifth election victory. After what has been said, can anyone imagine a constructive working relationship being forged between Howard and Obama, or indeed any Democrat?
The truth is that Australia needs to have such a relationship with whichever candidate the American public elects, be it the ultra-hawkish John McCain or the anti-war leftist Dennis Kucinich. Howard's remarks may have blown it.

Those defending Howard point out that in an increasingly interconnected, globalised world, the election results in one country are of great importance to others, particularly when the elections are taking place in the world's most powerful nation. And that alone gives leaders such as Howard the right to make their preferences known. But although it is true that next year's presidential election result will affect the lives of millions around the world, the fact remains that it's up to Americans - and Americans alone - to choose their president.

The essence of democracy is that elections are the exclusive concern of the citizens of the sovereign nations involved, and that means no outside interference, either by means of other countries bankrolling particular parties or groupings (as the US has done on several occasions), or through partisan interventions such as Howard's.
It's perfectly acceptable for McCain or any of the other presidential hopefuls to claim that al-Qa'ida will be praying for an Obama victory. In the interests of democracy, it's completely unacceptable for an Australian prime minister, or any other foreign leader, to do likewise.

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