It’s time for a transformational foreign policy
8 Sep 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user andy wagstaffe

Australia needs a forward-looking foreign policy to guide the efforts of our hardworking diplomats. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s intention, as reported recently, to commission a Foreign Policy White Paper is timely. As Graeme Dobell’s post notes, we need a political document with a policy punch.

The procession of largely disappointing Defence White Papers over the past decade masks the fact that it is 13 years since Advancing the National Interest and over a quarter of a century since Australia’s Regional Security (a Ministerial Statement rather than a White Paper) saw the light of day.

For the past two decades, Australia’s foreign ministers and their department have dealt competently with the day-to-day issues and occasional crises. They’ve been good at transacting the business of diplomacy. But one has to go back to Gareth Evans to find a foreign minister who set an agenda, worked at it tirelessly with his department, and delivered results. The Chemical Weapons Convention, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons are enduring testaments to a transformational foreign policy.

A transactional foreign policy deals with things as they occur. It has no plan. It’s pragmatic rather than purposive, reactive rather than visionary. A transformational foreign policy, on the other hand, is targeted, preferring principle to pragmatism, direction to simple responsiveness, enduring benefits to activity for its own sake.

The incoming Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Frances Adamson, may well have her work cut out, the greatest brake on progress being, perhaps, her own minister. During the Deputy Leaders’ debate held at the National Press Club on 21 June 2016, Julie Bishop had this to say. ‘In our pragmatic approach to foreign policy we deal with the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be.’ This observation goes to the heart of the narrowly transactional approach to foreign policy that has characterised Australia’s foreign policy for the past 20 years.

For all her energy and undoubted hard work, Bishop has neither identified nor advanced any of Australia’s longer-term interests and hopes. She hasn’t sought to create a world as Australia might wish it to be—surely the principal goal of a foreign minister who wants to make a difference. Here are a few issues that she could consider for inclusion in a transformational foreign policy agenda.

The strategic relationship (or contest, perhaps) between the US and China is the force that will shape the Asian region for the rest of this century. Australia’s security and prosperity depend on how that is managed: if tension and a consequent arms race is the result, Australia will spend ever more on defence and our standard of living will drop. If, on the other hand, the US and China are able to accept that each has legitimate strategic interests in Asia and that cooperation rather than competition is the relationship paradigm, the entire Asian region (including Australia) will be well served. We have to work at this, however. It won’t just happen, especially while the US represents itself as the setter and arbiter of ‘the rules-based international order’ and China continues to employ aggression as the salve for ‘the century of humiliation’.

The greatest assets we have in managing this complex relationship between China and the US are our neighbours, who are affected just as much as we by a competition for strategic dominance. And Indonesia, a nation with a bright economic and political future, will inevitably take centre-stage in a transformational approach to regional strategic affairs. It’s in Australia’s interests to work closely with Indonesia to achieve this.

In terms of Australia’s international reputation and image, our refugee policy, in the guise of a border security policy, has been a disaster. We are seen in the UK and the US as lacking both compassion and smarts. The plight of some 60 million refugees globally is a major international problem—one that Australia needs to address in company with like-minded countries. We need a totally transformed diplomacy towards countries of first resort—particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand—and a completely re-engineered approach to the UNHCR. We need to work more energetically with the UN to tackle the main cause of the global refugee problem—civil war. And we have to stop exploiting economically indigent countries like PNG and Nauru. The global community needs a transformational approach to refugees. So do we.

In the newly-minted anthropocene era, the consequences of global warming are increasingly entrenched, no matter how much we hide behind the fact that other economies are bigger carbon polluters than we are (though there’s no escaping the fact that we are the biggest carbon emitter on a per capita basis). The scrapping of the Clean Energy Future package in 2013 may have played well for some on the domestic political scene, but it damaged Australia’s international reputation as a serious player on global warming issues. We have a responsibility as much to our regional neighbours as we do to future generations to mitigate the effects of global warming and to adapt to the inevitable environmental changes.

Closer to home, Australia’s relationship with Indonesia remains formal and brittle, Papua New Guinea is teetering on the brink of social collapse, Timor Leste is locked in litigation with us on sea bed boundary issues and our relationship with New Zealand is supercilious where it isn’t dismissive. We need to invest in these relationships: exchanging emojis isn’t enough.

Of course, we can continue to deal with the world as it is, staggering from issue to issue, crisis to crisis, without much of a sense of what it is all about or where we might be headed. But the challenge for a government that likes ‘to live in exciting times’ is to manage the excitement rather than being overcome by it. That demands planning and strategy. That’s why a contemporary and purposive Foreign Affairs White Paper is so important.