Recalibrating Australia’s foreign policy for a more dangerous world
18 May 2022|

Recency bias should caution us against attributing too much weight to current events relative to historic ones. But even accounting for this cognitive distortion, it’s a fair assessment that the past five years constitute a remarkable period of change to the world Australian foreign policy navigates.

Consider just some developments since 2017: two Australian elections, Joe Biden replacing Donald Trump in the White House, an entrenched souring of bilateral ties with China, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a US–China trade war, the emergence of AUKUS and re-emergence of the Quad, and the China – Solomon Islands security pact. And that’s before we contemplate the worst pandemic in a century: millions of Covid-19 deaths, recessions globally and in Australia, border closures and lockdowns, a loosening of Australian federation and the exposure of the fragility of supply chains.

An obvious consequence of such a breadth and depth of change is that Australian foreign policy needs recalibration. The 2017 foreign policy white paper holds up remarkably well—its enduring foresight is a credit to its authors. But it is a creature of its context, meaning its relevance has inevitably faded. With a new or re-elected government imminent, commentators including Allan Gyngell have called for a new or refreshed foreign policy strategy. Though even as early as mid-2020, Richard Maude, the 2017 white paper’s principal architect, was advocating an update.

Interrogating how some of the critical uncertainties in the 2017 white paper have panned out gives us some clues about the next document.

It will need to address the damage wrought by Trump to America’s global standing, but also now the Biden administration’s work to restore it. In grappling with the evolution of great-power competition, it will need to move beyond the still optimistic, hedging position on China struck in 2017: ‘We welcome China’s greater capacity to share responsibility for supporting regional and global security.’ A franker view reflecting Beijing’s decisive slide towards greater authoritarianism and assertiveness is sorely needed. It will also need to reckon with the stark reality that the Pacific is now firmly a domain for strategic competition, while further stepping up Australian support for the region’s long-term development.

Responding to Covid’s lessons, a new document will need to rebalance away from an unabashed commitment to economic openness to a more nuanced view better incorporating security and resilience. It will also need to double down on the difficult work of multilateralism given Covid’s reminder that there’s no room for ambivalence about international cooperation on transnational challenges in such a deeply interconnected world.

At a minimum, a new strategy document must include three core elements. First, it needs to explain Australia’s outlook on the world. What are the key trends? Who are the most important actors? What are the threats and opportunities for Australia? Second, it needs to set out a narrative for Australia’s role—its objectives and aspirations—in influencing the world. Ideally, that should start with a unifying story about Australian identity that links clearly to the kind of world Australia aims to shape. And finally, it should set down guardrails and priorities for policymakers.

Done well, a new strategy document would be a vital signalling device to allies, partners and adversaries about how Australia intends to act, generating a trust and deterrence dividend. More importantly, though, it would lend ‘strategic coherence’ to how the tools of Australian statecraft work together and provide discipline around how resources are allocated relative to priorities.

There are three broad options for a new strategy document, differentiated by their timing (release date), scope (the policy areas considered), method (how the process works), and whether both policy and resourcing considerations are included.

Short and sharp: international policy update. The least ambitious option would be a document that updates the most important but outdated elements of the 2017 white paper. Think of this as the minimum viable product. Delivered within six months by an internal taskforce at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, it would be narrowly focused on diplomacy, trade and investment, and development policy. Given the quick turnaround, it’s unlikely it could meaningfully consider resourcing questions.

Medium and middling: white paper redux. The least imaginative option would be a whole new white paper with a similar scope and process to 2017’s. Like most compromises, it would be unsatisfying. To be done properly, it would take a year—failing to meet the urgency of the moment. Even once completed, though, it would replicate the structural shortcomings of its predecessor in failing to prescribe the necessary capabilities to achieve its objectives and being limited primarily to the policy levers at DFAT’s disposal.

Optimal but optimistic: integrated national security strategy. The gold standard would be a whole-of-government national security strategy along the lines of the UK’s 2021 integrated review. This would be an unprecedented exercise in grand strategy for Australia. As the Asia–Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue recently suggested, it would coordinate all ‘tools of statecraft to achieve … foreign policy objectives, bringing together development, diplomacy and defence to achieve maximum effect’. It would take at least 18 months, run by a special taskforce comprising external experts and senior agency representatives. In addition to breaking down policy silos, it would holistically calibrate capability to objectives by properly resourcing all instruments of Australian foreign and strategic policy in a positive-sum way.

Essential to the strategy’s success is that the mechanism that created it evolves to implement it. As Ashley Townshend and Thomas Lonergan recently wrote, a ‘new national security council–like organ … organising Australian statecraft at a whole-of-nation level’ is needed. The taskforce formed to draft the integrated strategy should serve as the foundation for a central agency that is the engine room of Australian grand strategy.

The political appetite for any kind of official update to international policy will become clearer after the election, though there are positive signs from both sides of politics for greater integration of foreign-policy tools. Regardless, DFAT’s red and blue books should both contain concrete options for a new guiding strategy. One approach could be to do a rapid update focused on urgent policy issues in the first six months while working towards a bigger structural reform such as an integrated strategy later.