Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

E&OE

6 November 2008

Interview - Greg Cary, 4BC

Subject: US election

GREG CARY: And with the election of Barack Obama to be the next president of the United States, let's get a perspective from our government on what that might mean for us at a government level. Stephen Smith is our Foreign Minister and joins us.

Minister, good morning.

STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Greg, how are you?

CARY: Yes what's your feeling upfront about President Obama?

SMITH: Well it's a deeply significant historical event, the election of the first African-American president. So, I think, with the election of any new government or any new administration, it does bring the chance or the opportunity of a fresh approach, a fresh start, particularly when you're dealing with some seemingly sort of difficult or intractable issues.

The fact that it's so significant, I think, has added to the notion of a fresh start or a new dawn and added to a lot of hope and optimism that, you know, a new brand America, if you like, a new United States might actually be able to progress on some very difficult issues that have bedevilled the international community for a period of time.

CARY: Well that's right. He's got a lot of domestic stuff to deal with, but as you say, there's a lot of international things he needs to get his head around too. In terms of what he'll be doing and what our attitude to that will be and our involvement in that will be, how will that play out?

SMITH: Well I think the first two points that we'll impress upon the new administration will be firstly, the alliance between Australia and the United States. That's served both nations well for over 50 years and it transcends governments here, Labor or Liberal, and transcends administrations there, Democrat or Republican.

And after a period where we get to know the new - or I get to know my new counterpart and Joel Fitzgibbon our Defence Minister gets to know his Secretary of Defence counterpart - after that initial settling down period, which normally we'd expect to occur in the first half of next year, it will be very much business as usual and that's a good thing, because our alliance with the United States remains one of the fundamental pillars of our strategic, security and defence arrangements.

The second point we'll make is, this is a century of the Asia-Pacific as we see economic and strategic and political influence move to the Asia-Pacific, with the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the ASEAN economies and so the active engagement of the United States in the Asia-Pacific is very important to us and very important to the region, and also very important to the world. So, they'll be the first two points we'll make to the administration, and I don't expect anything other than screaming agreement in that respect.

We then get to the some of the difficult issues, Afghanistan for example, where we've got nearly 1,100 troops and we welcome very much President-elect Obama's indication of an enhanced commitment to Afghanistan, not just a military contribution, but also a civilian capacity or a nation building capacity which we regard as being very important.

CARY: General Petraeus is over there now, so we can expect a change in the focus, can't we, away from Iraq, where he's made commitments, as did the Government of which you're a part. Greater focus on Afghanistan, greater pressure on Pakistan, so are we with them on all of that?

SMITH: We welcome all of that. Certainly we welcome General Petraeus taking charge of what they call - what the Americans call Centcom or Central Command. He did a very effective job in Iraq in treating Iraq, not just as a military enforcement action, but also that nation building or institution building capacity as well and he takes that approach to Afghanistan. We support that very strongly. The... you've mentioned Pakistan...

CARY: Yes.

SMITH: ...we've been saying for some time that the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area is the hot bed of the current international terrorism. And Pakistan itself, we've seen with the terrible assassination of former Prime Minister Bhutto early this year and the terrible bomb blast at the hotel recently. So, Pakistan is itself under pressure, and we've become what's known as the Friends of Pakistan Group in the United Nations. And we've been saying for some time that international communities have to render assistance to Pakistan in these difficult terrorist and security issues.

And certainly, President-elect Obama has made it clear that he sees that as a central focus as well and we welcome both the attitude to Afghanistan and the attitude to Pakistan.

CARY: One of the concerns about Afghanistan has been expressed here and it's been expressed in the United States, Minister, is that there seems to be no clear strategy about what winning means there. Can you give us anymore clarity about that yet?

SMITH: Well I think, and the Australian Government thinks, three things are required in Afghanistan and I think this is very much the emerging international community view. It's certainly the European view. I was in Europe last week to sign what's known as the Australia EU Partnership Framework, which puts our relationship with the European Union on a much more broadly based arrangement or basis. And, I was able to speak to French Foreign Minister Kouchner, the French of course, chair or have the presidency of the European Union at the moment. We spoke about, you know, problems in Afghanistan.

And the emerging view, and I think this is shared now, shared now in sort of mainstream America, is three things are needed in Afghanistan. You need to have a military contribution to counter the terrorism or the extremism to bring peace and security. You've also got to have that nation building or institution building capacity that I've referred to, but the third thing you need to have is you need to have the Afghanistan Government, the Karzai Government, sitting down with the other political players in Afghanistan coming to a political settlement. Those three things, I think, are essential.

But what we do know about Afghanistan and that Afghanistan/Pakistan border area, that is currently on all of the advice, where we find the most difficult centre or focus of international terrorism, which can move very quickly these days, north to Europe or south to South East Asia.

So, what the international community effort and our interest and our effort in Afghanistan is all about is reducing, eliminating, suppressing that international terrorist capacity, and that's a separate issue, we think, from a political settlement so far as the political parties or the various political interests in Afghanistan are concerned.

So, you need three things. You need peace and security, a civilian effort, but you also need a political settlement amongst the Afghan political players.

CARY: Meantime, you've got Iran stirring on the edges and during the campaign, Barack Obama was criticised by John McCain for suggesting that he'd sit down, without preconditions, and talk to President Ahmadinejad or whoever there. Are you in agreement with that?

SMITH: Well I think Iran and Iran's nuclear capacity may well be the most pressing issue that the international community finds this time next year. We've been very concerned, as a new government about Iran's nuclear activities, and recently in the Parliament I announced enhanced sanctions on Iran in response to their failure to render themselves accountable to the International Atomic Energy Agency, so we're very concerned. I was in Israel recently and this is certainly, so far as the Israeli leadership, their single biggest concern.

We very strongly believe that Iran has to be brought to book on its nuclear program and the best way of doing that is by international community and diplomatic pressure. The last thing we want to see is military or enforcement action. But, Iran does have to be brought to book and in the end, the only way you can do that is by international pressure and having a dialogue.

So, President-elect Obama, and of course, the campaign made it clear that it would have that dialogue. In an element here of carrot and stick, we've been applying United Nations Security Council sanctions and we've taken further sanctions as I've indicated and that's been - the United States has done the same as has the European Union who, an element of carrot and stick, which is putting financial and other pressure on them through the sanctions, but also indicating to them that they need to be engaged with the international community and allow themselves or render themselves accountable to the international regulator which is the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Authority.

CARY: Okay.

SMITH: But that will be potentially the most pressing issue the international community has to face this time next year.

CARY: Okay Minister, just a final question. It comes from a caller who is first up. He thought he'd heard that we'd committed $1 million to aid in the Congo, which is a right mess at the moment and threatens to get worse. Did we, and if we did, why did we?

SMITH: Yes we did. Again, when I was in Europe with Foreign Minister Kouchner, he, together with David Miliband, because the French obviously have historical interests in the Democratic R epublic of the Congo. He and Foreign Secretary of Britain, David Miliband went to the Congo to speak to the president of the Congo and the president of Rwanda to try and firstly, get a cease fire and then to see whether further European forces might be required to bring stability. There's a considerable UN peace-keeping force there about 17,000. It’s a terrible humanitarian crisis with displaced people and civilian victims.

I announced over the weekend that we would give a million dollars immediately to United Nations international NGOs to render immediate humanitarian assistance, and we're waiting for further assessments by the UN and the international non-government organisations, the aid organisations, to see whether a further contribution from Australia is appropriate and desirable.

So we've made an initial contribution which will help with the immediate needs of the displaced people and we'll wait for UN and other judgements to see whether we can make a further contribution, but it's a terrible humanitarian crisis there and we thought that was an appropriate gesture from Australia.

The key donors, if you like, will tend to be France and the European Union, because of their more longstanding closer interests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it's a terrible humanitarian crisis and we wanted it to do that, reflecting, I think, Australian's view that we should help when we can and be a good international citizen.

CARY: Okay. And the counter view of course, that I think it was Ron, and you'd expect the counter argument, that is at a time when we're trying to prioritise things at home and plenty people are doing without. How can we find this money for those and other places?

SMITH: Well governments always do more than one thing at the same time.

CARY: Yep.

SMITH: And so as part of our response to the financial crisis, for example, we've applied a $10 billion package and the vast bulk of that is aimed at pensioners or low to middle income earners, families under financial pressure, to give them some relief, at the same time as trying to boost domestic consumption to keep our economy in the positive.

So, I think, yes, people will always have their concerns and interest about what's happening domestically, particularly in the economy, and we don't like families being under financial pressure, we don't like pensioners being under financial pressure, which is one of the reasons why we've given them relief effective from 8 December, but that's also consistent with our general economic approach of trying to keep us economically positive, going through a very tough time.

But we also want to be a good international citizen and do our bit for those nation states who are much worse off than we are. And in the Congo, as you would have seen from the pictures on the TV, it's...

CARY: Terrible.

SMITH: ...it's a terrible humanitarian situation.

CARY: It is. Our Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, enjoy the day.

SMITH: Thanks Greg, thanks very much.

CARY: Good to talk to you.

[Ends]

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