International relations | Australia

25 February 2015

To meet global challenges and ensure national interests, Australia needs to develop a coherent foreign policy narrative.

Facing a tough year ahead in getting its domestic policy agenda through Parliament, the Abbott government should seize the opportunity to build a strong policy narrative in the realm of foreign affairs. Foreign and trade policy are the responsibility of arguably the government’s two most strongly-performing ministers, and usually escapes the venom of partisan politics.

Perhaps most importantly, 2015 offers a year of comparatively clear air for Julie Bishop and Andrew Robb. On gaining office in 2013, the Abbott government’s foreign policy agenda was full, dealing with Indonesian anger at the Snowden leaks and the tow-back-the-boats policy, and Chinese pique at Australia’s concerns over Beijing’s behavior over disputed islands. Last year was little better, dominated by legacy commitments left by the previous government – the Security Council and hosting the G20 – plus left-field crises generated by the downing of not one but two Malaysian Airlines jets, the sudden surge of Islamic State, plus a punishing wish-list of bilateral trade deals.

Clear air, clear vision

Building strong policy frameworks in foreign affairs is a relatively recent tradition for Australian governments – but one that has served governments and the country extremely well. On becoming Foreign Minister in 1988, Gareth Evans began wide consultations with foreign policy specialists, before outlining his vision of Australian foreign policy in a major speech the following year. His successor, Alexander Downer, engaged a small group of experts and produced the first ever Australian foreign and trade policy White Paper in 1997, updated in 2003. Each blueprint successively guided the foreign policies of the Hawke/Keating and Howard governments between 1989 and 2007.

Evans’ and Downer’s frameworks were very different in content: the former’s was strongly multilateralist and committed Australia to middle power activism and ‘good international citizenship’. The latter’s were more bilateralist and regionalist. What they had in common was a clarity of vision and an impeccable internal logic that matched Australia’s abiding foreign policy interests to the prevailing global trends of the time.

The Evans blueprint adopted multilateralism as the Cold War was ending and the world looked to building a cooperative ‘new world order’. The Downer framework suited the pragmatic bilateralism of Asian countries struggling to overcome the devastation of the Asian Financial Crisis and the failure of their regional bodies to act decisively in that conflagration.

Both foreign policy blueprints delivered real benefits to Australia: closer integration with Asia and the Pacific (APEC for Evans, the East Asia Summit for Downer); major agreements strengthening global governance (the Chemical Weapons Convention, the International Criminal Court respectively); and substantial relationships and influence with important bilateral partners.

As both former Foreign Ministers would no doubt admit, outlining strategic foreign policy visions carries risks of becoming a hostage to fortune. The month that Downer launched his White Paper – which predicted the rise of Asia’s power and wealth – the region succumbed to the Asian Financial Crisis. But against this risk, there are multiple benefits of clear foreign policy blueprints. They send a clear message of direction, purpose and competence to diplomatic partners and domestic stakeholders alike. They provide the government with clear guiding principles when navigating the often-difficult cross-currents of foreign policy issues. They communicate a clear vision of the state of the world and what sort of policy is needed at times when such clear thinking is a scarce commodity.

And, perhaps most importantly, they put the government and the country on the front foot in foreign policy terms. A clear vision that sets clear directions and priorities gives prospective diplomatic partners – be they states, organisations or civil society groups – opportunities and incentives to engage with Australian foreign policy. A clear foreign policy framework can be a potent diplomatic force multiplier.

National interests, global challenges

A foreign policy blueprint needs to reconcile Australia’s enduring foreign policy interests with the prevailing challenges and trends of the time – and find the most appropriate techniques and settings for doing so. We have three abiding national interests. Foremost, Australia needs to ensure it remains an active and influential insider in the regions that are most crucial to our safety and prosperity. The Pacific, Southeast and Northeast Asia have always been central to our security and prosperity; today South and West Asia are also growing in importance.

Second, as a highly trade-dependent economy without the military throw-weight of a great power, Australia has an enduring preoccupation with ensuring that international rules and institutions are robust, fair and authoritative. A world without strong rules and institutions is a law-of-the-jungle world, and nothing would be more damaging to our safety and well-being.

Australia’s third enduring interest feeds directly into the first two. Thanks to our history and geography, Australians have a long history of thinking creatively about the outside world, and our readiness in proposing new ways of doing things can at times weary even our closest friends. But this means that we attach great importance to maintaining strong relationships, and even privileged access, to the most influential countries and institutions in our world. Our alliance with the United States, strategic partnerships with Japan and India, strategic dialogue with China and embrace of Indonesia, along with memberships of the East Asia Summit and G20, are of crucial importance.

Today, Australia faces real challenges in securing its three abiding interests. The regional memberships that once seemed to assure our influence and access are now less dependable. APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum and even the East Asia Summit are no longer the only games in town. On the one hand, the growing enmeshment of Asia-Pacific dynamics with those of South and West Asia have overflowed the boundaries of these regional institutions. On the other, new institutions such as the Chiang Mai Currency Swap initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank have emerged as alternative forms of regional governance – not to mention the complex tangle of bilateral and regional trade deals.

The rules and institutions of global order seem less robust now than they did in 1989 or 1997. Like a flash of lightening, the global financial crisis illuminated how profound have been the shifts in global economic and political power since the end of the Cold War. Asia’s three continental states, China, India and Russia, each impatient for a return to global prominence, have begun to push and haul at the rules and institutions we’ve come to rely on. Theirs are not revolutionary schemes to replace one set of rules with another; what makes their challenges so confounding is the partial and self-interested nature of their goals and tactics.

India has affected the biggest shift in the nuclear non-proliferation regime since its inception only in relation to its own status; but the world is dealing with the consequences of this shift as it struggles to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. China’s and Russia’s challenges are to territorial rules and agreements established after the Second World War and Cold War. Beijing claims it is simply asserting control over islands and seas that were always Chinese, but the implications for the law of the sea and freedom of navigation could be global. Moscow asserts its actions in Georgia and Ukraine are simply to protect vulnerable Russian minorities, but its use of humanitarian concern to reassert a sphere of interest could have implications for minorities, territorial agreements and democratic governance across Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and in Central Asia.

Our relationships with each of the influential powers in our neighbourhood face a different set of dilemmas. There is little doubt we have robust relations with the region’s most influential states. The real difficulty lies in being able to keep each relationship in good shape simultaneously, while each of the great powers watches our relations with its rivals with no small measure of jealousy, and at times a shade of paranoia.

Japan, America and increasingly India worry about how far Canberra is prepared to cozy up to Beijing. China, for its part, is highly sensitive to any alignment, whether rhetorical or real, between Australia and Japan, and tends to judge any decision not sympathetic to its interests to have been the result of American pressure. Perhaps even more complicating is the growing evidence that these fervid interpretations of Australia’s alignments are now being replicated in our domestic foreign policy debates.

If tracking Australia’s national interests during this era is hard, divining the dominant global trends and preoccupations in today’s world is doubly difficult. But among all the power shifts and divergent viewpoints, three dominant concerns are shared by nearly all national governments around the world.

The first is a yearning to escape the nagging, seemingly endless instability and uncertainty that has pervaded the global economy since the collapse of Lehmann Brothers. The previous quarter century of relative stability and growth in the world economy increasingly appears to be a golden age that may not be recaptured. For economy after economy, mature or emerging, the path back to prosperity seems snared in thickets of wicked political problems, be they the incompatibility of democracy and austerity in the Eurozone, the partisan fiscal deadlock in the United States, or the political risk of taking on vested interests in China, India, Japan and Indonesia.

The second unifying concern is the need for new understandings on who sets and enforces the rules in a world of rapidly shifting power correlations. The conviction of the most powerful and prosperous societies of the last century – the United States, Europe and Japan – is that the existing rules suit the new world as well as they did the old; all will be well if the newly risen powers simply sign on as responsible stakeholders. The new behemoths, principally China and India, are not so sure. They realise there’s a lot to like in the current system – not least its provision of the permissive conditions for their own rise – but each increment of their power and each new call for them to assume more responsibilities seems to prompt new gripes about the fairness and authorship of the status quo.

The third pervasive anxiety concerns who sets policy in this new age of activism and connectivity. Governments, whether authoritarian or democratic, liberal or statist, face unprecedented challenges to their authority, control of information, and capacity to deliver reform. As publics become more cynical and demanding, governments face the challenge of accommodating their demands while maintaining policy along tracks of stability and predictability. Added to this is the latest wave of a global jihadist insurgency that uses slick social media tools to tear at the connective tissue of our societies: secularism, mutual tolerance, respect for life, and law.

Foundations of a framework

These are big challenges for an Australian foreign policy blueprint to reconcile, and to find the best means of reconciling them. But the elements of such a framework already exist in the broad evolution of Australian foreign policy over the past five years. Canberra has remained abreast of the rapid evolution of regional connectivities, and the widening of regional definitions.

A relatively late starter to the game of preferential trade agreements, we are now an eager practitioner; we are also one of a handful of countries that are parties to the two big regional trade deals being negotiated, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Closer Economic Partnership. All of these strands could be knitted together into a clear statement of Australia’s approach to its regional connectivities: a multi-vector, comprehensive engagement. Further, Australia should be willing to host and participate in ongoing discussions of regional goals and dynamics, much as Julie Bishop has initiated in relation to the Pacific in the meeting she will host in Sydney.

Although Australia has benefited greatly from the existing rules and institutions of the global order, we are pragmatic enough to realise that shifts in global power will inevitably lead to changes in rules and who enforces them. In the current stand-off between status quo advocates and change protagonists, there is a great need for pragmatic advocates of considered evolution in global rules and institutions. Australia could begin to play such a role by setting out a vision of those aspects of international rules and institutions that need to endure in the name of global stability, and those that should be allowed to evolve. Kicking off such a discussion offers a much better chance at consensual progress than simply allowing such issues to fester in the background as states butt heads in successive multilateral negotiations.


The outlines of this approach are apparent, though not explicitly articulated, in Canberra’s cautious approach to China’s proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment bank. Late last year, the Abbott government deferred signing on to the scheme out of concerns about its governance standards – primarily the amount of influence Beijing would have over its activities, and therefore what those activities would be. But Australia continues to negotiate with China about membership of the Bank, using the bargaining chip of the considerable legitimacy that our membership would bring to the Bank to pressure Beijing to institute more rigorous decision and governance rules. In effect, Australia is signaling its openness and support for institutional innovation and evolution sponsored by rising powers; while insisting that these must uphold abiding values of global governance.

Canberra has also shown that it refuses to be panicked by great power jealousies. It has patiently continued to build good bilateral relations with established and rising powers, thereby demonstrating that the sum of its bilateral relations add up to omni-directional engagement, rather than siding with one against another. Stating this as a clear foreign policy principle would do much to assure all sides, while also signaling to our neighbours in Southeast Asia that we share their goal of maintaining all powers’ active and positive involvement in the region. We could also add that Australia’s strong relations with all of the region’s great powers makes us more, not less, valuable to each of them.

Finally, an Australian foreign policy blueprint can take direction from the common anxieties over economic prosperity, governance and connectivity to forge a new approach to foreign policy. These are all enduring challenges that cannot be addressed by the foreign policy strategies of the past. No one believes that all or indeed any of these challenges can be addressed by grand multilateral institutions or bargains. Nor is there much credibility given to muddling through these issues with dogged pragmatism.

Our age calls for a new approach, of explicit discussions of practical solutions to governance issues, be they broadly multilateral or bilateral. They should no longer be confined to governments, but need to include business, civil society groups, and connected and engaged publics. This new approach might be called ‘heterolateral’, and built around a cumulative determination to foster a new era of equilibrium, certainty and prosperity to the world beyond our shores. The outlines of such an approach are apparent in the new ‘MIKTA’(Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia ) grouping of smaller open democracies within the G20 that Bishop enthusiastically advocates.

All of the elements are there for a new foreign policy vision for Australia. Bishop and Robb have amassed considerable diplomatic capital and good will in their time as Ministers, inside and outside Australia. The Secretary of their Department, Peter Varghese, wrote the first Downer White Paper and is a formidable foreign affairs intellect. The conditions are ripe for a new blueprint to guide us through the tricky times ahead.

This essay was also published by The Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

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