Government and governance, International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

26 August 2016

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has announced Australia will develop a new foreign policy White Paper, its first since 2003. What has changed for Australian foreign affairs over the last 13 years, and what foreign policy decisions should the new White Paper prioritise over the next decade?  

Last week Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced the development of a new foreign policy White Paper to be led by incoming head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, the first woman to lead the department. In the new Policy Forum Pod, Professor Michael Wesley discusses the foreign policy environment shaping Australia’s new White Paper. Listen here:

Over the last few years Australia has developed a number of White Papers, including the Defence White Paper earlier this year and the Asian Century White Paper developed by Ken Henry in 2012. But not since 2003, when the Howard Government published Advancing the National Interest, has Australia had a white paper devoted solely to foreign policy.

Professor Michael Wesley is Director of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University. He has published extensively and has authored several books on foreign policy, including The Howard Paradox: Australian Diplomacy in Asia. He won the 2011 John Button Prize for Best Writing in Australian Politics for his book, There Goes the Neighbourhood: Australia and the Rise of Asia.

In setting the scene for how the international environment has changed over the last decade, Wesley points to how the world has seemingly become a more unstable and unpredictable place.

“You had the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. You had the Arab Spring Revolutions occurring. Just after them, you had the rise of Islamic State. You had a more bellicose Chinese foreign policy behaviour.”

One of the unfortunate outcomes of this instability, especially in the absence of a clear foreign policy framework, is that foreign policy has become inherently reactive.

“There is a sense that we are managing the world, but we are not moving forward in the world in any particular direction or in any particular way. I think a country in our location of our size needs to have a very clear sense of where it’s going.”

Wesley says this new White Paper really needs to address the big issues facing Australia today.

“The big issues are a growing sense of rivalry between the United States and China, a growing backlash and opposition to globalisation and, therefore, a malaise of multilateralism, the problems of regionalism we’re seeing in our own part of the world.”

On the topic of foreign aid, Wesley points out that Australia’s aid is becoming less significant over time, not just globally but also in our region.

“We are now going to be going into a time when Australia is not, for instance, the predominant aid giver in the South Pacific, and that’s going to have big repercussions for our influence in that particular part of the world.”

More on this: Impoverished foreign policy is damaging Australia’s standing on the international stage

Even more than a shrinking aid budget, the tightening of purse strings at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) will have consequences for Australia’s influence globally.

“A country like Australia needs a powerful diplomatic network. It needs a dynamic and well-resourced foreign affairs department. I think the continuing squeezing of DFAT is another element of this broader Australian belief that the rest of the world will look after itself.”

It is this belief which may be increasingly challenged over the years ahead, especially in the context of a rising China.

“We’ve had this sense, in which the world has been nicely managed and organised in our interests by very big and powerful countries, often that look and think like us. I’m not so sure that’s going to be the case anymore.”

Wesley hopes that in this new white paper, Australia can reassert a sense of imagination and big picture thinking about what’s happening in the world.

If you’d like to learn more about some of the issues raised in this podcast, head along to the Australia 360 Conference held by the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. This free conference will be held all day in Canberra this coming Monday 29 August.

You can catch up with our Policy Forum podcast series via iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please give us a review on iTunes and help us get the word out.

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One Response

  1. Stephen Howes says:

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the interesting interview.

    I was surprised by your claim that “We are now going to be going into a time when Australia is not, for instance, the predominant aid giver in the South Pacific”. If we are not going to be the predominant aid giver then who will be? Lowy’s factsheet on the subject shows that in 2006-13, Australia gave $US 6.8 billion to the Pacific. The US was second with $US 1.8 billion. China was fifth with $US 1.1 billion. Australia is going to be the predominant aid giver to the South Pacific for decades to come.

    More broadly, I do hope that the new foreign policy white paper gives a lot of attention to aid. Let’s face it, Australia’s position on the South China Sea or on Syria matters not a jot. But how we spend our $4 billion of aid makes a difference to the lives of millions. Aid decisions get the least attention but are arguably the most important made by any Australian Foreign Minister.



    PS I was also surprised by your claim your claim concerning “the continuing squeezing of DFAT.” At the time of the 2015 budget, Julie Bishop announced what she said was “the single largest expansion of Australia’s diplomatic network in forty years”. And DFAT has of course now got access to the $4 billion aid budget, and all the departmental resources that go along with that.

    References here:

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