The Buzz

The MH17 Disaster: Australia's Shallow Foreign Policy On Display

Generous commentators discern a wider strategy in Australia's mission to the MH17 crash site in eastern Ukraine - a heartening sign of the government's willingness to engage, hard-headed, with the world, wherever Australia's interests demand it.

Today, though, the Australian Federal Police's (AFP) Ukraine Operation is looking more and more like the charge of the light brigade: gallant, but not bright.

For the third day running, the AFP has failed to reach the crash site. The Federal Government has said they could wait for up to three weeks on the outskirts of Donetsk, in the middle of a civil war whose deeper geopolitical issues the Government has by its own admission little interest in.

This isn't the AFP's fault. But those who sent them there appear to have been misled about the conditions they would find.

In place of the ceasefire supposedly provided for by last week's Australian-sponsored Security Council Resolution 2166, the crash site is a battleground as the Ukrainian army attempts to drive a wedge between the rebels and the Russian border. (See, for instance, this New York Times report.)

Indeed, the AFP's Ukrainian hosts stand in breach of a cardinal provision of SC/2166, "that all military activities, including by armed groups, be immediately ceased in the immediate area surrounding the crash site to allow for security and safety of the international investigation."

This puts Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, now back in Kiev, and Australia in an awkward situation. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has every right to feel put upon by Australia's SC/2166: though welcome when it comes to the rebels, it's an obvious burden when it curtails the army's ability to suppress a rebellion on national territory. Certainly, it's a concession of sovereign rights it's hard to imagine any Australian government being prepared to make.

To fix the situation but in reality probably making it worse, Bishop wants Ukraine's parliament (which has not yet approved the Dutch-Australian mission) to approve the arming of the policemen Australia has deployed on its territory.

Yet the only thing worse than having unarmed personnel deployed in this particular warzone on the other side of the world is armed ones.

There are two simple reasons.

First, the Netherlands is a NATO country. Second, Australia is an American treaty ally.

Bishop will have to be very confident that both the Kremlin and the rebels will distinguish the inoffensive purposes of armed Australian personnel as clearly as we do.

That can't be taken for granted.

On Tuesday, the rebels accused the OSCE - the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, under whose auspices the mission has been arranged - of serving as a vehicle for American interests.

And from Russia's perspective, the whole point of this conflict is to stop the eastward expansion of Western-led organizations, such as NATO and the EU, which it perceives as a cover for spreading America's sphere of influence over the territories of the former Soviet Union.

Just a few months ago, this geopolitical contest was in earnest. With countries from the Baltic to the Black Seas facing the not implausible threat of Russian invasion, Europe was in the grip of its most serious great-power confrontation since the war-scare of 1983.

Such is the setting in which some are cheered to see the faces of Australian security and, possibly, defense personnel.

There's something of the spirit of 1914 in casting the AFP operation in Ukraine as a chance for Australia to prove, mainly to itself, that it matters on the world stage.

The counter view is that, as the Foreign Minister navigates the shoals of Ukrainian politics, Australia appears at sea in a place and conflict it doesn't understand or wish to - and which, its public statements seem to suggest, wouldn't concern it at all but for the tragic deaths of 38 Australian citizens and residents.

The Prime Minister, too, believes it possible to separate the humanitarian disaster of MH17 from the issue of "the geopolitics of Eastern Europe."

But freedom of maneuver in the space that such separation creates isn't an expectation we normally have when it comes to the unintended civilian victims of war - including the 800 or so civilians whom the United Nations has reported killed since mid-April by Ukrainian army shelling.

We know that our options for helping them are limited for a range of practical, political and military reasons.

Rather, it says a lot about the priorities of modern Australian foreign policy that the country should subordinate other relevant considerations to the exigencies of a consular case.

Of course, it's right for Australia to want to look after its own. But we mustn't exaggerate our ability to do so, whenever or wherever, just because, as Australians, we're fundamentally a good and democratic people with a right to a peaceful existence on earth.