Foreign policy redux
5 Apr 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user Unsplash.

Writing recently about Malcolm Turnbull’s decision not to seek ratification of an extradition treaty with China, the journalist Bernard Keane didn’t think it would affect the government’s political position: ‘For a start, it was in foreign policy, an area voters couldn’t care less about’.

He’s probably right. Apart from periods when Australian citizens feel their security threatened by war or terrorists or uncontrolled arrivals by boat, or when they develop an uneasy sense that their leaders are not up to the task of managing the alliance or the neighbourhood, foreign policy in this country has been the preserve and preoccupation of a small elite of politicians, officials, commentators and academics.

Australians have always regarded foreign policy suspiciously. We only got around to ratifying the Statute of Westminster, which established beyond doubt our sovereign identity in the world, in 1942, as Japanese forces headed towards our shores. We were much later coming to it than comparable countries such as Canada and South Africa.

More often than not, in the years that followed, foreign policy has played second fiddle to defence or national security policy. It sits uncomfortably with our national image. It seems vaguely unpatriotic. The stories it tells of lengthy negotiations and backroom deals in distant conference rooms, whatever the value of the product, are hardly the stuff of national mythmaking.

Effective statecraft has many other dimensions, of course—a strong economy, a capable defence force, robust institutions, a resilient society. The role of foreign policy within this broader construct is to expand the space available to the nation state to operate in the international system and maximise the options available to expand its interests and support its values.

It exists at both the macro and the micro-level, embracing fundamental choices like the decision to form an alliance with the United States and the day-to-day efforts of our ambassadors in Mexico or Myanmar to identify points where Australian interests can be pushed or the international positions of our two countries aligned.

Despite the public caution, it turns out that Australia has been quite good at foreign policy over the past 75 years. The evidence is around us: Australia is a secure and prosperous country, largely on good terms with our neighbours, with a solid alliance with the most powerful country in the world, and a productive relationship with China, the most important of the rising states. We have been able to exercise influence at the global level when we have needed to.

Now, however, our policymakers face challenges greater than any I can recall. The post-war global order, established in the Allied war aims set out in the Atlantic Charter, was globalising in its objectives. The institutions of the United Nations and Bretton Woods gave it form. The technologies of the information revolution reinforced it.

But Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are manifestations of a protectionist, counter-globalising mood that is appearing in different manifestations all over the world. In Russia, Japan, China, India and Turkey strongly nationalistic leaders have taken power. Closer to home, President Duterte in the Philippines shows Trump-like characteristics, and President Widodo has a less cosmopolitan worldview than his predecessor in Indonesia.

The empirical data on trade and investment flows, on treaty making and manufacturing point in the same direction. Global Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) was down 13 percent in 2016. Growth in the volume of trade is reducing and values are declining across all markets and product sectors. Non-tariff barriers are rising.

Each of the three strands woven through the foreign policies of every Australian government since the Second World War—an alliance with a great and powerful friend, engagement with the region around us and support for a global order in which the rules, whether of trade or of war, are known, and which we have played a part in setting—is coming under strain.

In this uncertain world foreign policy, pushed to the margins by geo-economics during the 1990s, and by national security concerns after the turn of the century, will find its central place again.

That’s because, better than other dimensions of statecraft, it can deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. It can pick its way through issues ranging from the melting of the Antarctic ice sheets to Donald Trump’s ego. Its sober and calculating traditions of reciprocity will find fresh relevance in what is shaping up as a more transactional world.

If President Trump succeeds in his efforts to cut the diplomatic and aid budget of the State Department by nearly 30 percent we will see a consequential test of whether foreign policy matters.  More than 120 retired US three and four-star military officers have written to the Congressional leadership arguing against the proposed cuts on the grounds that ‘elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe’.

The generals are right.