There was a change of tone in Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s media conference this week, where he announced the deployment of the Australian and New Zealand training contingent to Taji, Iraq. Gone was the more strident rhetoric about the ADF being the ‘long, strong arm of Australia’, leaping at ‘an opportunity to do something which is unambiguously good’—language the PM used at Al Minhad airbase in the UAE last August. The latest announcement was more cautious about the risks faced—‘it is a dangerous place and I can’t tell you that this is risk-free’—and the prospects for success in the context of ‘a pretty dispiriting situation in the Middle East in recent months.’
For all the caution, though, the PM’s instincts about Australia’s role in the world were on full display:
The fundamental point I want to make is that we are a good international citizen. We have a long history of shouldering our responsibilities to the wider world. This is about international security and national security. We will do what we can to keep our country safe, to play our part in the wider world….
This comparison may not often have been made, but Mr Abbott is probably the most liberal internationalist Prime Minister Australia has seen since Malcolm Fraser.
In January 2013 Julia Gillard offered a form of naive regionalism when she declared the end of the 9/11 era and described the strategic outlook as ‘positive and ‘benign’. It helped Australia get voted onto the UN Security Council.
Kevin Rudd’s approach was a frenzied hard-power gamesmanship schooled in observing Chinese statecraft. That delivered the promise of twelve submarines. John Howard practiced a pragmatism that produced surprising results for East Timor and got us closer to the US and to China simultaneously. Hawke and Keating made big strides to shape regional architecture, but all to the aim of realist balancing in Asia by locking in the US to the alliance and to APEC.
One has to go back to Malcolm Fraser to find a Prime Minister as committed as Abbott to the idea of Australia simply being a force for good in the international community. Fraser’s liberal internationalism famously saw him take a stand against Apartheid South Africa, welcome Vietnamese refugees after the fall of the South in 1975 and oppose Australian participation in the Moscow Olympics after Russia’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
Mr Abbott surprised some observers in his Parliament House eulogy for Mr Fraser when he sought to claim back to the Liberal Party the views of a man whom some judged to have moved significantly to the left after leaving politics. Abbott said:
John Howard has famously observed that the Australian Liberal Party, unlike its namesakes elsewhere, is the custodian in this country of both the liberal political tradition and the conservative one. But there is in fact a third tradition our party represents that is as vital as our liberal and conservative philosophies—a dedication to service and to repaying good fortune, the working out in this world of the gospel notion ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’.
That ‘third tradition’ explains a lot about the personal emphasis Mr Abbott brings to international affairs. Abbott demanded a very high profile Australian response to the Russian shoot-down of flight MH17 over Ukraine and seemed as affronted by Moscow’s refusal to accept responsibility for suppling the weapon as much as the reality of Australian deaths. In the new deployment of forces to Iraq the PM has provided additional forces without there being undue international pressure to offer them. Why? Because ‘the important thing is to make an effective and meaningful contribution to the security of the wider world.’ Doing good internationally promotes Australia’s security because it secures the spread of values like our own and ultimately defeats the ‘Islamist death cult’.
You could object that Mr Abbott’s liberal internationalism doesn’t derive from a commitment to international institution building, such as that of Woodrow Wilson. Our PM’s approach seems to draw more from a sense of moral obligation informed by faith. In this respect Abbott’s closest counterpart is former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
Others may claim that the PM’s approach is invalidated by the impact of policies such as ‘stopping the boats’ and aid cuts. But both Abbott and Gillard claimed that a driving priority on boats was to stop drownings at sea. On aid, one defence is that poorly directed development assistance achieves neither institution building nor good moral purpose.
A third objection might be that by deploying troops to Iraq Mr Abbott is just paying ‘alliance dues.’ Not so. Australia did its best to influence a reluctant US to intervene.
A final pointer to this emerging world view can be seen in the priority Abbott has given to strengthening relations with Canada. The two countries are like-minded and share many common values, but what makes Canada important to Tony Abbott is a shared tradition of doing good internationally. In a carefully crafted speech to the Australia–Canada Economic Leadership Forum last year the PM made some revealing remarks:
On a wall in my offices, hangs a painting of a World War One battlefield near Vimy Ridge where Canadian and Australian soldiers had been comrades-in-arms. In those days, it would have been taken for granted that Canadians and Australians should have gone into action together….
The relationship is strong but under-developed even though we are as like-minded as any two countries can be. So, I want to make more of this friendship: for our own good and for the good of the wider world.
Instinctive and based on judgements about an obligation to do good, Mr Abbott’s approach to strategy is significantly different to an Australian norm of realist pragmatism.