Policy File: foreign policy White Paper

Opportunity, Security, Strength… and more than a little debate

Martin Blaszczyk

Australia's foreign policy White Paper, International relations, National security | Australia, The World

1 December 2017

Australia’s commentariat has thrown its weight behind the new foreign policy White Paper, writes Martin Blaszczyk.

As amply demonstrated by Policy Forum’s Rapid Round-up, the Australian Government’s first foreign policy roadmap in 14 years tackles a mind-boggling array of issues and challenges facing the country in a complex, globalised world.

From concerns about shifting geopolitical power relativities in our region (Alan Tidwell and Chengxin Pan), foreign aid (Ashlee Betteridge and Joanna Pradela) and trade (Lisa McAuley), to country perspectives, counter-terrorism (Jacinta Carroll) and higher education (Lauren Johnston) the paper recognises that “we are facing the most complex and challenging geostrategic environment since the early years of the Cold War.”

Writing in The Australian, Troy Bramston underscores the consensus view that the paper expresses a necessarily nuanced, inter-disciplinary approach to foreign policy underpinned by a combination of values-based liberalism and hard-nosed realism – an approach broadly supported by the Opposition. And the document’s explicit admission that all security issues now have an international dimension led Rory Medcalf to conclude that it “reads like an intelligence assessment – a really sound one – or a national security strategy” in the Australian Financial Review.

More on this: White Paper not real on rules | Benjamin Zala

As the AFR’s Andrew Clark outlines, Australia’s main game will continue to be the delicate balancing act between its security guarantor (the USA) and its main trading partner (China). Nevertheless, it is a game in which Australia pines for continued US leadership, says James Curran in The Interpreter, America’s long-term relative decline and Trumpian isolationism notwithstanding.

For its part, China wasted no time expressing its displeasure with Australia’s admonishments to uphold a rules-based international order – a problematic concept in Australia’s dealings with both superpowers in the region, as Benjamin Zala points out in Policy Forum.

And it is the intricacies of Australia’s approach to China that rightly pervade debates among the policy wonks. Writing in The Strategist, Paul Dibb applauds the country’s more realist and realistic approach to China’s rise, while the Lowy Institute’s Merriden Varrall argues the paper fails to deal with China’s conception of and vision for itself in the regional order. In The Diplomat, Sian Troath points to clear obstacles to developing new partnerships in the Indo-Pacific as a hedging and balancing strategy.

Watch this space for this debate to intensify as Hugh White launches his Quarterly Essay on ‘Australia in the new Asia’.

More on this: Rapid Round-up: Foreign policy White Paper

The White Paper has also brought up some familiar issues. Writing for Australian Outlook, Allan Gyngell commends the paper’s “thoughtful” approach while bemoaning another failure to devote adequate resources to the heightened regional engagement it promises. In the same publication, Jacqui True wonders why ‘soft’ power, such as fostering human rights, gender equality, education and development through aid, doesn’t figure as a more significant strategy to wield the influence we seek and promote the values we espouse in the document.

For something a little different, see Zushan Hashmi’s assessment of DFAT’s approach to ‘digital diplomacy’ in The Stringer – important given that effective use of cyberspace is possibly one of the most important tools of statecraft available to the modern nation-state.

Perhaps the last word should go to (a supportive) Nick Bisley in The Strategist: “[Foreign policy white papers] are not necessary for the conduct of effective foreign policy. They are expensive and they expend diplomatic capital by signalling policy positions that might otherwise be carefully obscured. And they can become obsolete with frightening rapidity. In some respects, they are something of an indulgence.”

Only time will tell whether this roadmap was useful in leading us anywhere at all.

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