Spying scandal: Obama, Abbott and why sorry is the hardest word to say

Should Tony Abbott follow Barack Obama’s example and apologise personally to Indonesia leaders over the spying scandal, as Obama did to Angela Merkel? EPA/Andrew Harrer

The contrast between Australian prime minister Tony Abbott’s self-defeating response to spying allegations with Indonesia and US president Barack Obama’s reaction to smooth its similar row with Germany is eye-catching.

Obama wasted little time in getting on the front foot and attempted to mitigate the mix of offence and indignation from European leaders and the public. While much of this outrage should be seen as both hypocritical and part of standard political theatre – and despite the fact that signals intelligence might be a useful part of regular US operations – the White House was sensitive to containing wider anti-US sentiment and backlash.

In contrast, Abbott needs to better filter his natural bulldog political instincts, and should apologise to Indonesia. The clear-eyed combative stance that served him well as opposition leader can do more harm than good when dealing with the intricacies and complexities of foreign affairs.

This is not to suggest being assertive and even being prepared to occasionally get noses out of joint is an unimportant tool in the rough-and-tumble world of diplomacy.

The Obama example

Obama acted to take the protests against US spying activities seriously. He did not throw up “national security” smokescreens. He issued a personal apology to German chancellor Angela Merkel and ordered an immediate and total “review” of the activities of the intelligence community. He suggested a preparedness to find ways to do things differently with like-minded partners than from the past.

It is also likely that Obama was being half honest when he stated an unawareness of the specifics of the particular operations that had intercepted Merkel’s phone calls. The US president’s job is not to micromanage the intelligence community (including the selection of targets), although he certainly would have been fundamentally aware that the US is spying on foreign leaders abroad.

Yet despite the expressions of US willingness for self-imposed limits to its foreign policy activities, it is unlikely that we will witness a radical overall change in the ways and means of US espionage based on the latest diplomatic row. But hopefully the breach of trust might allow for some wider self-reflection about the costs, not just the benefits, of the rise of the surveillance state.

Another useful spillover of the spying “scandal” is that it has initiated a much-needed wider discussion about balancing concerns over individual privacy with counter-terrorism. It has also sparked a debate on whether agencies are collecting data because it is critical to inform relevant decisions or simply because they can do.

But the immediate point in this particular instance of Obama’s diplomatic outreach was to distinguish quickly between friend from foe, and promise to set or review some national rules to calm people’s suspicion and fear about US power.

It is worth acknowledging that Obama’s pitch to placate overseas audiences rather than justify the case for unlimited surveillance was not without some domestic heartburn. There has been various murmurings from intelligence agencies that Obama failed to adequately defend spies for doing their job and responding to executive priorities.

There has been no support for the agency (NSA) from the President or his staff or senior administration officials, and this has not gone unnoticed by both senior officials and the rank and file at the Fort.

What Abbott can learn

Based on glimpses of Abbott’s approach to diplomacy, he appears a closer disciple of the George W. Bush school of modern diplomacy: a “my-way-or-the-highway” point of view.

Tony Abbott should curb his ‘bulldog’ diplomacy instincts in this instance. AAP/Daniel Munoz

While it is true that all countries spy on each other, it is Australia that has been caught out in this instance. At the very least, swift signals that displayed a willingness to listen to the concerns of others are all part of the ebb and flow of a larger political game – especially when the “victim” (in this case, Indonesia) is a crucial ally.

More broadly, contrite public explanations can help to avoid inflaming an Asian audience. Australia has traditionally had a long-standing image problem in some parts of Asia, such as the US “deputy sheriff” tag that appears very hard to remove.

Smart diplomacy also requires nuanced cues and forward-thinking, especially when dealing with fragile but vitally important relationships like Australia and Indonesia. Compromise or a preparedness to make assurances about future policy directions – or even eating some humble pie – should not be automatically equated with weakness and the undermining of national interests.

A “call-to-arms” nationalistic rhetoric – that has worked generally well for politicians in domestic settings in the post 9/11 world – lacks diplomatic finesse and, in this instance, reeks of hubris.

An apology to Indonesia should be the first step as part of the Australian government’s priority to reduce the impact of the spying revelations on Indonesian national pride and not back their policymakers into a corner where they feel compelled – in part due to democratic considerations – to respond in an equally pointed and sharp public manner. It’s a lose-lose situation.

The well-established script that the Australian government does not comment on (or show contrition for) intelligence matters is getting tiresome. In this instance, it is hardly a justification for diplomatic negligence and failing to exercise political self-restraint.

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