Gordon Campbell on the Clark briefing paper, Obama’s Veep

Like most peeks behind the diplomatic curtain, the gaffe about the Australian briefing paper on Helen Clark was amusing, but instructive. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. If any country has been happily locked into ‘Vietnam era’ foreign policy perceptions, it has been Australia. To the extent that John Howard’s servile stance to the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan was virtually identical to Australia’s “All the Way With LBJ” position taken in 1965.

If nothing else, the briefing paper is worth keeping in mind next time we read the guff about how well the leaders get on at APEC or at South Pacific Forum, or how much Condi likes Winnie etc etc In reality, as the briefing paper showed, Australian politicians patronize New Zealand and always have done in the laziest of fashions. We matter so little across the ditch that our local Australian High Commission hadn’t bothered to update its file notes on us over the last five years.

Well, newsflash for Canberra – what the Clark government has been doing for the past nine years is to construct an independent foreign policy based on multilateral institutions and processes, such as the United Nations, the UN Conventions ( there’s one on the treatment of refugees that the Howard government never seemed to have read) and the Kyoto protocols.

That’s why New Zealand didn’t send troops to Iraq, but did so to Timor and Afghanistan – because the former lacked a clear UN mandate. Howard, on the other hand took his foreign policy bearings from Washington over the war on terrorism, on climate change and everything else. As a result, Kevin Rudd is having to play catch up with us on how to run an Emissions Trading Scheme, and on how to build an independent foreign policy stance towards China – where in both cases, the New Zealand government got there years ahead of him

Normally, New Zealand likes to celebrate its triumphs over Australia. So far, the fact that Wellington has been streets ahead of Canberra in foreign policy sophistication has not received the coverage it deserves. As Michael Cullen told Scoop a few months ago, Australian officials have been coming here to learn how to construct an Emissions Treading Scheme. More’s the pity that the National Party is now wanting to wait until Australia has constructed its ETS, so that we can fit in with them.

No surprise. Merely a sign that John Key may well be willing to take New Zealand back into its old Vietnam era relationships. Back to a future where we once again make decisions only after taking instructions – namely, what does Canberra or Washington want ,and how can we be of service to them ? Key still can’t give a straight answer on whether a government he led would have sent New Zealand troops into Iraq. And looking ahead, does Key think the world should be treating military action against Iran ( over its nuclear ambitions) as a viable option – or not ?

It will be pretty sad if Key does turn back the clock. Doubtless, a man who can’t remember what he thought about the Springbok tour will be even hazier about what the Vietnam war was about. So let’s just say that while the Vietnam war protests were anti-American in form, they were pro-New Zealand in content. They were about New Zealand having the maturity to make its own calls on where we stand on regional conflicts, and that our best interests lie in siding with the people of the region, and not in treating them as pawns of any global super power.

It took a long time for New Zealand to learn how to think for itself.. As recently as April this year, Green MP Keith Locke was still being slagged in Parliament for supporting Pol Pot in 1975, before the Khmer Rouge atrocities had begun. This was pretty rich, given that both the Muldoon and Lange governments later supported Pol Pot during the 1980s and voted for him as the rightful occupant of Cambodia’s seat at the UN – long after the killing fields were common knowledge, and after Khmer Rouge had been driven out by the Vietnamese. Why did New Zealand foreign policy continue to embrace Pol Pot ? Because the Americans were wooing China, Pol Pot’s ally, against Vietnam ( the Soviet Union’s ally) and we were – as usual – slavishly following the Washington line.

So it continued, until this decade. Under John Howard, Australia remained happy to be a regional sheriff on Washington’s behalf. Rudd seems smarter than that. But is John Key ?

Obama’s Second Banana

Early tomorrow morning, Barack Obama is expected to announce his choice of a vice presidential running mate. The odds-on choice at this point is Joseph Biden, the 65 year old chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the nearest thing to a recognised foreign policy expert that the US Senate currently has to offer. Only last week Biden was in Georgia talking options with Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili about the crisis with Russia. Elected at the age of 29, Biden has been a Washington insider for nearly four decades.

That is his strength, and his limitation. Clearly, here is only one way Biden fits with Obama’s message of change – namely, that the Democrats are playing to win this election, for a change. As balance, Biden brings age, experience and foreign policy clout to the ticket. Which is fine so far as winning the election goes – but in terms of running an administration for the next four years, it also indicates that the veep’s job under Obama will be a substantial one. If Biden becomes the foreign policy supremo, this could leave Obama free to focus on domestic policy, while confident that Biden is a safe pair of hands on global issues.

What else do we know about Biden ? To the outside world, he will be remembered – if at all – for being forced out of his own run for President in 1988, on the grounds of plagiarism. ( Biden had copied parts of a speech from something said by the then UK Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. ) Very embarrassing.

Biden hails from a Catholic working class family in Pennsylvania – and this should help Obama in the Ohio/Pennsylvania swing states where he has had trouble gaining traction. Though a practicing Catholic, Biden supports abortion rights. He also voted for the Iraq war, though the New York Times has portrayed this major glitch in the Biden resume in the best possible light :

Mr. Biden supported the 2002 Iraq war resolution and thus is at odds with Mr. Obama, who opposed the war from the start and has made his judgment on the question a centerpiece of his campaign. But Mr. Biden tempered his support for the conflict by saying it should be limited to ending Iraq’s weapons programs, and he has been a sharp and persistent critic of the war’s conduct.
Last year, he said giving the Bush administration the authority to wage war was a mistake. “I regret my vote,” he told Politico, the politics Web site. “The president did not level with us.”

Currently, the presidential race is far closer than it should be – given a US economy in recession, and a disastrous war – and there are even signs that John McCain is pulling ahead of Obama in the polls. The Republican strategy of portraying Obama as an effete elitist appears to be working. This decade, it has been one of the wonders of American politics that the Republicans have succeeded in portraying their opponents as country club elitists born with silver spoons in their mouths. Even though that description rings far more true of the gilded frat boy who currently occupies the White House than it is does of Barack Obama, the child of Kenyan /American parents, raised by his mother as a sole parent.
This theme of Can Obama Connect with Middle America has been played out last week by an optimist called Bob Moser

and here by the less rose-tinted Thomas Schaller.

Their theme : can the Democrats’ realistically hope to win back the South, and should they be spending time and money in the attempt? For a neutral take, this column in the Athens, Georgia newspaper by Dick Polman sheds some fascinating light on past trends in the eleven states that comprised the old Confederacy. John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000 lost them all. In fact, if you take out the native sons – Bill Clinton from Arkansas and Jimmy Carter from Georgia, who both had regional advantages – the record is even more dismal. In 68 contests in the Southern states since 1980, the Democrats have won only nine of them.

Time to give up? Well, not really. Fact is, the old Confederacy accounts for 153 electoral votes out of the 538 at stake nationwide, so it can’t be ignored. If it was, as Polman points out, Obama would need to win 72 % of the vote everywhere else to take the White House.

At the very least, a winning equation probably has to include four southern states. Virginia is the most likely. North Carolina, thanks largely to similar population changes as in Virginia, is another possibility. Georgia, where Libertarian Party leader Bob Barr ( a former Republican senator from Georgia ) may split the McCain vote, is another prospect. In Florida, a perennial swing state, the Democratic registration of voters has increased massively, as has a Hispanic population not wedded to the Republicans.

How did the Democrats ever come to lose the South– which Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had seemed to deliver to them for all eternity? Answer : Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act, and his initiatives to promote voting rights to all Americans, regardless of colour. Both factors sent vast numbers of Southern white voters into the ranks of the Republican Party. The rise of a politicized evangelical movement helped keep them there.

The issue today is whether the South has changed, or changed enough to make the Democratic Party a contender there once again. The region has seen the infusion of middle class Yankees chasing jobs and lifestyle options down South, and the Florida experience – a vast rise in registration of Hispanic migrants, and blacks – has occurred across the region. To the point where some speculate that even Mississippi can be won by the Democrats if Obama can score only 31 % of the white vote. Texas too, is demographically a racial melting pot now, and up for grabs.

The optimists also claim to see signs that the social attitudes forged by the reaction to the civil rights movement and by the rise of the evangelical churches is mellowing. Since 2004, the collapse of the evangelicals as an organized political force – the failure of Christian Coalition Ralph Reed’s Senate race in Georgia in 2004 is generally seen as being a watershed – is one positive sign for the Democrats.

This has co-incided with a softening of the evangelical message into a Christianity more tolerant, more accepting of pluralism – and more capable say, of regarding environmentalism as good stewardship of God’s creation. In tele-evangelical terms the shift is more to the likes of Joel Osteen and Rick Warren, and away from the fundamentalism of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

For all these hopeful signs, Obama and Biden will still have their work cut out to reap rewards from these seismic shifts, come November. The South is changing, but slowly. As sceptic Thomas Schaller says in his Salon piece :

“If [the Democrats brand of economic populism were an untapped electoral reservoir in the South, Southern state budgets would not be among the lowest per capita in the country, unions would not be weaker than in any other region, and working-class white Southerners would already be joined at the hip with working-class black Southerners as the backbone of the most Democratic region in America. But these are not Southern political realities, and wishing them so will not make them so.

What is indisputable is that in 2006, with economic populism on the rise, the Democrats had a great cycle nationally — but not in the South. ….85 percent of all new-seat gains in Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislative races in 2006 came outside the 11 states of the former Confederacy. …If the South were in fact primed for and desperately in need of an infusion of economic populism, why weren’t electoral gains at the very least uniform across the country? Indeed, given the greater poverty of the South and the already-higher share of Democrats outside the South, shouldn’t the party’s new economic populism have produced in 2006 better-than-average gains in the South relative to other regions?

Were the South not the most racially polarized region in America, that wouldn’t matter. But as the 2004 National Election Study shows, it remains so. The golden era of the pre-Great Society, solid Democratic South can never be reconstituted.
At minimum, at least two preconditions must be in place: a fundamental shift in the social attitudes of Southerners and a racial détente between working-class whites and blacks.

A message of change, in other words, seems viable only if the conditions exist to accept and nourish it. It is easy to understand why Obama may have wanted an old pro like Biden on board. That’s quite disappointing. But then again, demanding change only in its purest form is also old school, Vietnam era politics.