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Oz baling wire diplomacy

Posted By on July 11, 2016 @ 06:00

Image courtesy of Flickr user 8#X

Australia does baling wire diplomacy—practical, pragmatic and proudly makeshift.

Oz rural tradition decrees a bloke with baling wire can fix a gate or fence or shed or even a tractor.

Baling wire diplomacy is adequate to the moment. Imagination is useful, not always essential. Flair is optional, adaptability vital.

The urban version of the baling wire habit is duct tape diplomacy. Tape the thing up, keep it going.

Baling wire philosophy—the duct tape dictum—is that of a status quo power. We like things as they are. Long may it continue.

The dictum drives Australia to be a great joiner. Membership matters. We want to be in the club, at the table, in the game.

Asia drives the joiner instinct. Australia seeks to be Asia’s odd-man-in.

When your only natural regional ally is New Zealand, the constant need is to create the habit of belonging. To be in the club is to have a voice.

Big powers do grand strategy. Australia pitches in with practical stuff. That’s the limitation and strength of the baling wire way. Australia helps keep the show on the road and even moving.  

If baling wire is the mode, what are the enduring mindsets or attitudes?

The three pillars of Oz diplomacy and strategy are the US alliance (the Menzies tradition); multilateralism and the UN (the Evatt tradition); and the region (the Spender/Casey/Keating tradition).

The personifications of policy are from one of the great essays on Australian foreign policy: Owen Harries in his final 2003 Boyer lecture, presenting the mindsets as exemplified by fine players.

  1.    Menzies

The realist view of the world is expressed by Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, with John Howard as the Menzies manifestation of our times. The Menzies tradition is all about Australia allying with the ‘great and powerful friend’. Harries pronounces:

‘This is a thoroughly realist, power- and interest-based tradition, though in Menzies own case this was sometimes obscured by his taste for sentimental declarations of attachment to Britain and the Queen, which misled some into thinking that he was merely a romantic loyalist. As a realist and a conservative, Menzies was sceptical of abstract, general schemes. He looked to interest rather than principle as the motive for action, to history and experience rather than abstract reasoning for the basis of sound judgement.’

Australia gives political and military support to maintain the system and seeks security in return. The mindset confers political advantage and was ‘highly congenial to Menzies personally’ because he was ‘wired into the main game of global power politics in a way that was otherwise impossible’.

The White House visit matters, for personal, political and policy reasons.

  1. Evatt

As exemplified by Doc Evatt, this tradition seeks to establish Australia’s independence and is suspicious of great powers:

‘It is both strongly nationalist and internationalist. No contradiction is involved here, since internationalism is favoured, not only on principle, but because international organisations are regarded as the most congenial and effective forums for a middle power like Australia to register its presence and extend its influence.This tradition is assertive and energetic. It is concerned to give Australia a high profile as a country capable of making a distinctive contribution to international affairs. Sometimes it leads to hyper-activity and attention-seeking.’

The Harries putdown of hyper-activity is from the 1946 Paris Peace Conference, where Evatt tabled 400 amendments. ‘Sadly, only one of them was adopted.’

The core Harries (and realist) critique of Evatt internationalism is in this:

‘Power politics tends to be seen as chosen mode of behaviour, rather than something inherent in a system of sovereign states and necessary for survival.’

  1. Spender/Casey/Keating

The quest for Australia’s place as a natural and integral Asia player is represented by two Liberal Foreign Ministers and a Labor PM.

Note that each was passionate about Asia while being firmly wedded to the alliance. The traditions aren’t separate, but intertwine and interact.

The Menzies and Evatt traditions pulse through Australia’s approaches to the region.

Australia starts from a first-principles commitment to the US alliance system. Working from that base, Canberra has strained mightily since the end of the Cold War to help build diplomatic and strategic structures that can span the Asia–Pacific.

The structural or architectural conception in the Spender/Casey/Keating tradition finds some basis in the Harries description of ‘machinery’ as Evatt’s favourite word:

‘He meant organisational and institutional frameworks, procedures and rules. In his view, getting the machinery right was the secret of progress, for he believed that, to a great extent, form determines substance. Those of this persuasion tend to subscribe to the dictum “build and they will come”.’

The pragmatism running across the three traditions is the ‘horses-for-causes’ ability of Australian governments to grab whichever toolset is useful to the moment.

Part of being a practical operator is knowing when the tractor is finally cactus or the ute is rissoled. When the old model can deliver no more, the baling wire mechanics go looking for new stuff to do the job.

Australia’s history says we mightn’t be good at foreseeing the big shifts, but we can jump when it hits.

If lots of stuff needs to be changed or made anew, a pragmatic response is to ditch the duct tape to reach high and go big. That was what Australia did in a period of golden diplomacy at the end of the Cold War, launching APEC and being present at the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum.

Occasionally ambition and imagination matter as much as energy.

At the moment, though, Australia’s sticking to its main game. Lash on baling wire and keep the show going.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/oz-baling-wire-diplomacy/

[1] Owen Harries: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/boyerlectures/lecture-6-punching-above-our-weight/3459850