I’m grateful to Andrew Carr, Rod Lyon and John Blaxland for taking up the debate about Australia’s role as a ‘top 20’ global power. It’s obvious we disagree on some fundamental points about designing the best strategy to keep Australia secure in a more risky and competitive world. There are echoes of this discussion around Julia Gillard’s optimistic Asian Century White Paper; Kevin Rudd’s apparently increasingly pessimistic view of regional security; the ‘China choice’ confection; and Tony Abbott’s instinctive globalism—notwithstanding his pre-election ‘more Jakarta and less Geneva’ slogan. Discomforting and novel as it may be, Australia urgently needs to have a grown-up discussion about strategy.
As my first blog post made clear, I take the view that Australia should reshape its defence and foreign policy around promoting a set of broadly-defined global interests. This would force a break with a regional policy priority that has shaped strategic thinking since the end of the Vietnam War. That focus started quite narrowly—in the 1980s defining Australian interests around the ‘inner arc’ of the Indonesian archipelago. Driven outward by crises, our definition of what constitutes our essential region has progressively widened to include Timor and the Pacific, a wider swathe of Southeast Asia and now—for some at least—the Indian Ocean and North Asia.
Even while Australia’s default definition of ‘the region’ has widened, the debate naturally invites the tag of ‘Globalists versus Regionalists’. Readers should, however, demand more than labels. Here I set out some key elements that distinguish my (and Rod Lyon’s) ‘globalist’ view from a more strongly ‘regionalist’ Andrew Carr and John Blaxland.
Australia’s ‘top 20’ position draws on our G20 membership, itself a product of the size of the economy. Our economic and defence spending weight is a reality of where we stand relative to around 180 sovereign countries in the world. Calling Australia a top 20 country is a statement of fact, not policy intent. We don’t have a choice to opt out of this club. Andrew Carr argues that my view of Australia’s relative economic and strategic weight made us seem more like a globally-minded US than other G20 countries which, he contends, have more regionally-focused strategic policies.
That simply doesn’t ring true. The UK, France, and Germany—or any of the top 20 European states—certainly don’t argue that their strategic interests stop at the Atlantic. And it’s clear that Russia, China and Japan pursue strategic interests that keep them deeply invested in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Australia is distinctively the only one of the G20 countries that invests so much time in debating how it should narrow its interests. This is the geopolitical version of Australia’s much-derided cultural cringe. It’s high time we got over that self-limiting hurdle.
Part of the geopolitical cringe perspective insists that Australia can’t possibly have real strategic interests in regions beyond its immediate neighbourhood. According to this view if we deploy forces in the Middle East it must be because of the US alliance. But Australia has as much stake as any top 20 nation in preventing the spread of terrorism and in halting a sectarian descent into chaos in the Middle East. That could end in nuclear proliferation and major conventional wars. Far from being dragged into the current Iraq crisis by the US, it’s clear that Australia and a number of like-minded countries have seen it in their interests to encourage a reluctant President Obama to engage.
On this scale, the Middle East isn’t a second- or third-order priority as John Blaxland suggests. If only it were. But no amount of street violence in Dili has the potential to ruin Australia’s day as thoroughly as any of half a dozen trouble spots brewing in the Middle East. John’s quite right to worry that the international community has yet to develop a workable strategy to deal with ISIL, or Iraq, or Syria. But that’s a result of the enormity of the problem—and the likely scale of the solution.
A similar ‘regionalist’ argument holds that it’s somehow possible for Australia to be economically dependent on North Asia while having no interest or role in North Asian security. Such a view may have been sustainable in the 1970s when Japan was our biggest market and China had yet to begin economic reform. But strategic interest follows money as surely as bees follow pollen. Having global interests doesn’t mean that our regional interests are less important. Geography still matters—but it’s the connections rather than the barriers between regions that drive strategic change.
The hard reality is that Australia doesn’t have an option to opt out from the world’s biggest security concerns. Our engagement is driven by the weight of our direct interests. There’s no exit strategy from being a responsible global power. Being a good international citizen entails more than just being a casually benevolent player. Smaller countries (shall we say the smallest 150 of the 180) may claim that incapacity or disinterest makes them optional players in some strategic situations. But for the top 20 countries, including Australia, size confers an obligation to make meaningful contributions to the global order.