Foreign policy: PANDORA slays the dragon
1 Nov 2013|

A recent media report that the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper has been removed from DFAT’s website is correct. The White Paper now resides at Australia’s web archive, known as PANDORA, perhaps in a box marked ‘not to be opened’. Not too much should be read into this development: a new government’s arrival leads to the wholesale archiving of the previous government’s web content. PANDORA has over 200 million archived files, some 9.1 terabytes of data. For its part, DFAT retains active links to the five ‘Asian century country strategies’—in effect the only tangible products to emerge from the White Paper’s Byzantine planning framework.

The Coalition’s policy statement for foreign affairs released during the election campaign makes no mention of the White Paper, but does commit to a ‘focus on the Asia-Pacific region’ and later to what it calls the ‘Asia-Pacific-Indian Ocean region’. No Australian government could really do otherwise—even in the cyber century, geography still counts for something. So we should expect a large amount of bipartisanship on foreign policy, at least in terms of the countries and regions where we should focus diplomatic effort. That said, it’s not surprising that a new government has shelved an old policy. The Asian Century White Paper was a brand simply too closely associated with Julia Gillard to ever survive the change to Abbott, or even Rudd.

The Coalition government has a task ahead of it to develop its own statement of foreign policy aims and objectives. Some strands are already emerging: a strong emphasis on trade and investment; a practical approach to regional relationships; ‘more Jakarta and less Geneva’ (whatever that means); attachment to the Anglosphere and the US alliance; warmth towards Japan and pragmatism towards China. Less apparent is the approach the government will take to linking national security and economic strategic outlooks—that’s a challenging job which needs careful thought.

The best way to integrate these policy predispositions into a coherent strategic plan would be for the government to commission a new Foreign Affairs White Paper. Already dear reader, I sense you reaching for your revolver. Given the experience of the last few years it’s sensible to be cautious about advocating sweeping new policy statements at every turn, but the case for a Foreign Affairs White Paper is compelling. There are four reasons why the government should go down this track.

First, there hasn’t been a Foreign Policy White Paper since 2003 when the Howard government released Advancing the National Interest, described as: ‘a comprehensive assessment of Australia’s place in the world and articulation of the Government’s strategies to protect and promote the security and prosperity of Australia and our people’. A decade is a very long time to elapse between assessments of this type. The idea of white papers isn’t lodged in the DNA of DFAT diplomats in the way it is for Defence officials, but given the tectonic shifts in Australia’s strategic outlook since 2003, the case for a detailed rethink of our foreign policy settings is strong.

Second, the government needs to correct some of the deliberate or inadvertent mishandling contained in the Asian Century White Paper. Australia’s foreign policy interests are global and attention needs to be paid to those areas omitted last time around: the island Pacific, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. We shouldn’t fool ourselves that a foreign policy can be limited to a focus on five big Asian states.

A new policy statement also needs to better integrate the economic and strategic aspects of Australian national interests. Reading the Asian Century White Paper, one could be forgiven for thinking that the sunny uplands of Asian economic growth will sustain Australia for ever, but there are some difficult strategic challenges too. We need to be smarter in developing a shared economic and strategic view of Australia’s future.

Third, and as Russell Trood has written about in our recent Agenda for Change study, there’s a compelling need for DFAT to be better resourced with the money and people necessary to handle the growing range of diplomatic tasks Australia needs to perform. This should include strengthening the department’s capacity for long-term strategic policy development. I suggested in Agenda for Change that around an additional $100 million annually (sourced from AusAID) would be needed to rectify cuts made to DFAT over the last twenty years.

The Coalition’s Foreign Policy statement makes no explicit financial commitments but promises to: ‘implement a review of diplomatic resources and consider options for putting in place a long-term policy to ensure Australia’s global diplomatic network is consistent with our interests’. The right way to do this would be in the context of a White Paper which defines our interests—strategy should direct resources, not vice versa.

Finally, a new foreign affairs white paper is needed to break the intellectual hold the Asian Century White Paper has exerted on the commentariat. Until such time as the government presents its own coherent and detailed foreign policy strategy, the Asian Century study will sit like a rather sulky dragon over the top of Australia’s foreign policy machinery. The book has been archived, now the challenge is to displace its rather shallow brand attraction with the Coalition’s preferred model.

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user kizette.