Passages in Australian foreign policy

Henry S. Albinski, University of Sydney

James Cotton and John Ravenhill (eds) The National Interest in a Global Era: Australia in World Affairs 1996–2000, Oxford University Press in Association with the Australian Institute of International Affairs, 2001 (377 pp). ISBN 0-19551-525-0 (paperback) RRP $44.95.

The National Interest in a Global Era continues the quinquennial series on Australian foreign affairs the first volume of which covered 1950–55. It also maintains the series’ felicitous relationship with the Australian Institute of International Affairs. In the opening essay of the original volume, Fred Alexander lamented the shallowness of Australia’s foreign policy discourse. Both the research product of the successive volumes and the Institute’s energies have helped to redress that condition.

The writing in the latest volume varies in intonation but is consistently accessible. Not unlike Devin Hegarty’s approach to Australia and South Asia, Mohan Malik’s piece on China stresses geopolitical variables. Ann Kent’s piece idealises human rights. It argues that without a return to multilateralism and full participation in the international human rights regime, it is unlikely that any Australian government ‘could finally address its own problems, promote national reconciliation among its people, and bring humanity home.’

The volume is prefaced by context-setting material, followed by selections on regional and bilateral relations, and concludes with a thematically focused section. The global coverage is uneven. Latin America gets a chapter, but New Zealand’s mention is mostly in the Papua New Guinea/Pacific Islands essay.

Book reviews sometimes suffer from the venal sin of criticising the book the author(s) did not write. In my judgment, space should however have been found for targeted essays on the policy process, on international law, and preferably one on the media—subjects variously covered in earlier volumes.

Especially because 1996 represented a change in government, personalities, and governance styles, the process theme deserved a contribution of its own. Glancing back from early 2003, we have had a much more self-assured foreign minister than he was in 1996, an unexpectedly foreign policy-engaged prime minister, and in the defence portfolio a distracting number of ministers, some of whom never belonged. Inclusion of a process chapter could also have corrected the book’s near eclipse of the substance as well as the impact of the Opposition. Within their own settings, a number of contributors remark on the erosion of foreign policy bipartisanship. If so, its decline presages an even more tangled current relationship between and (to a degree) within the major party groups, as Australia considers a prospective conflict in Iraq.

A contribution on Australia’s management of the international law facets of its policies would also have been very welcome. There is lots of this material but it is scattered in individual pieces, notably Lorraine Elliott on environmentalism, Ann Kent on international human rights, and John Ravenhill’s examination of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other rule-bound trade entities. Much of the Howard Government’s conduct in the international law context has been both contentious and analytically interesting and qualifies for consolidated treatment in a volume such as this.

In my final foray into what might/should have been, a chapter on the media and foreign / defence policy would have been spot on: inter alia, the book could have comfortably included an assessment of the contemporary ‘commentariat’ as issue expositor and opinion shaper. Press treatment of issues ranging from Hansonism to East Timor could have been one slab of such a chapter.

Since September 11, Australian commentators have been debating whether the world—Australia’s world—has changed forever. The terrorism phenomenon, whether or not played out in our Asia–Pacific neighbourhood, will surely impinge on Australia profoundly. Bali was a vivid, nearby reminder. Defining ‘strategic environment’ in the context of our core interests has become increasingly elusive. As Graeme Cheeseman insists in his piece on defence, our official analysts and their political leaders must be unabashedly rigorous in their assessments. In a way, the nation faces security choices that are not generically novel—planning for regional as opposed to multilateral, globally dispersed commitments, and selecting the types of assets most suitable (and affordable) for use by the Australian Defence Force (ADF). What is new is Australia’s adjustment to homeland security and all that that implies; not just in domestic measures but in recalibrated intelligence work and cooperation with foreign agencies.

The nation faces security choices that are not generically novel.

Terrorism has not dispensed with but rather has complicated the international order’s basics and dynamics. Australia will foreseeably continue to craft policies appropriate to a struggling Indonesia, an ambitious China, a mercurial North Korea and a megapower America. As reflected as far back as the first volume in the series, and reiterated in this recent volume, a combination of its unusual historical experience, location, and other circumstances impose recurrent, and likely indefinite, demands on Australia as a security actor. We wish to win the confidence of and, as needed for instance in thwarting terrorism, to cooperate with our neighbours. We need simultaneously to cultivate an exceptionally robust alliance with the United States. The Asia versus America distinction is in my mind mostly a false dichotomy. In many, perhaps most ways, effective links to both ‘Asia’ and the United States are highly complementary, made more so by globalisation, economic and otherwise.

Australia has often performed carefully choreographed footwork to avoid the putative ‘choice’ between reassuring or pacifying neighbours, and maintaining first class relations with Washington. As for instance in the China–Taiwan dispute, it is not necessary to remain mute, but circumspection is the prudent way. Bill Tow observes that

Alliance loyalty is an esteemed commodity, but the most valued allies are those who are not afraid to demur from postures that are clearly not in their own national interest and who are willing to offer counsel on ways to resolve intra-alliance differences (p. 188).

The Bush Administration’s willingness (and political ability) to push ahead with the Howard Government’s much sought free trade agreement illustrates how, in degree, the alliance can resonate. Insofar as it raises expectations in Washington, the alliance relationship can nevertheless push the other way. The making of a military contribution in the Gulf War and later in Afghanistan was widely accepted in Australia. The prospect of going to war alongside the United States as part of a tiny coalition, under arguable rationale and potential international hostility is of a different order.

Australian diplomacy is at bottom directed at firming up an array of relationships to facilitate appropriate political, economic, and defence entrée means through which to exercise influence. Influence is in turn a mixture of various resources and capabilities, and of perceptions formed of us by outsiders. Especially because of its setting in an Asia–Pacific environment, often for domestic as well as overseas audiences, we have strived at definition. Gareth Evans evoked the notion that Australia should be the odd man in rather than the odd man out in Asia. John Howard has asserted that Australia’s history and geography are not contending forces. Alexander Downer has welcomed close Australian ties with Asia, but with the caveat that we can get on best not by embracing one another culturally, but in practical domains. Rightly or not, many commentators have worried that Australia has not been a successful balancer. As Tony Milner remarks in his essay, ‘At the beginning of the new century … there was uncertainty as to how serious the Australian government and the Australian people were about resuming the long-term commitment to a positive engagement with Asia’ (p. 31).

We need not be loved, but our interests require that we be trusted and respected. Our efforts at ‘positive engagement’ have, however, variously been scorned, even ridiculed by Asian elites. Our ability to contain misplaced or captious criticisms are limited, but Bill Hayden’s caution that ‘words are like bullets’ has applied. Howard did not say that Australia has enrolled as an American regional deputy sheriff, but intimated that this was the effect; it was an unfortunate metaphor. Nor in the aftermath of Bali did the prime minister intend to foreshadow an Australian pre-emptive strike against terrorists in neighbouring countries. But it was another unnecessary remark, and leaped upon by critics.

The Asia versus America distinction is mostly a false dichotomy.

Can Australia hope to persuade Australia watchers that we are doing the right things in the right ways? Various selections in the volume, as well as more recent developments, suggest mixed results. The Hanson phenomenon frightened many Asian elites. Their anxieties proved exaggerated, and imputations of insufficient timely rebuttal to Hanson by Howard was probably unfair. His original reticence to counterblast her was partially informed by reluctance to overdignify and overplay the importance of her position. Perhaps he miscalculated, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had to be energised to hose matters down, but he wasn’t being gormless.

Michael Wesley’s chapter on the 1997 Asian economic crisis is especially appealing because it makes explicit linkages between Australian policy and its underlying assumptions of a regenerated Australian regional stature, and actual Asian nation reactions.

Wesley is not all reassuring. Australia seemed to make the right moves in helping to bail out Thailand, Indonesia, and Korea. It did so with a certain panache and brought its influence to bear on international rescue operations. It followed up by sharing economic management best practices with interested regional countries. But in Wesley’s opinion, Australia got little in return, perhaps because ‘western’ Australia remained enviably economically robust during the crisis, while others suffered. Perhaps too there was a touch of hubris in Australia’s demeanour. Certainly the tensions generated by Australia’s East Timor role overwhelmed any residual gratitude the Indonesians may have held for our genuine helping hand in 1997. That inveterate critic of Australia, Malaysia’s Mohamad Mahathir, will remain so. Malaysia weathered 1997 well. It invoked its own mix of controls, required no special assistance, and found little virtue in Australia’s involvement with the International Monetary Fund and the like.

But—harking back to East Timor—it seemed quite plain that Korea’s and the Philippines’ much appreciated endorsement and participation in the INTERFET forces was influenced by Australia’s comradely behaviour during the earlier economic crisis. In the event, the terrorism phenomenon, highlighted by Bali and the uncovering of terrorist networks in South East Asia, has as a matter of self-interest drawn Indonesia and Australia into fresh modes of cooperation.

Despite, and to a degree because, Australia is the South Pacific’s dominant player, our regional reputation and influence are uneven. Australia is constantly being chided for failing to ‘understand’, imposing its own standards and reform strategies, and not singing from the same hymnal in such matters as environmental management. ‘Neocolonialism’ has been rediscovered as a term of disparagement, including among established regional leaders. The region’s venerable Ratu Mara has mused that perhaps it was not such a sound idea that Australia and New Zealand, European-derived nations, became charter members of the Pacific Islands Forum—and thereby for decades to have skewed island country affairs.

Terrorism, Tampa, and so on incubated an atmosphere of trepidation.

Such criticisms are at bottom the result of a region composed, especially in Melanesia, of natural disaster vulnerable, resource rich but publicly poor, socially fragmented, politically turbulent, often deeply corrupted, immensely dependent countries. When the Sandline affair broke in Papua New Guinea, Australia was castigated for not having done enough to avert this call by Papua New Guinea authorities to resort to imported mercenaries to quell the troubles on Bougainville. When there seemed a window of opportunity to patch together a Bougainville cease-fire and plan for a stable future, rebel spokesmen found Australia tainted by its closeness to authorities in Port Moresby, and therefore unsuitable as a driver. New Zealand had to take up the early heavy lifting. The monitoring process has since become a model of Australian peace-minding duty of care. But Australia has struggled to find a way to steer the region’s prime candidate for failed state status, Solomon Islands, into coherence. A few sticks but mostly carrots—money, diplomatic manoeuvres, heaps of advice and a contribution to an oversight contingent have done little good. At one juncture, scolding Australia for not having done the right thing, the Solomon Islands prime minister—apparently seriously—publicly appealed to the Australian electorate to retaliate against the Howard Government by turning it out of office. Needless to say, hectoring from Solomon Islands did not chill Australian public opinion.

External policy and domestic politics have however in recent years been noticeably animating one another. Much of the point and counterpoint is about images and symbols rather than policy content, strictly speaking. Hence the Coalition portrayal in 1996 of Keating and his government as pursuing chimerical visions overseas while neglecting the needs of ordinary Australians. Likewise the public gathering round the Coalition at the 2001 election. Terrorism, Tampa, and so on incubated an atmosphere of trepidation, especially beneficial to an incumbent Government that appeared to be displaying leadership, constancy and indeed a form of nationalist cadence. Bali was not a foreign policy issue as such, but again served to mobilise a grieving nation behind a prime minister who was de facto exercising the role of head of state and speaking for us all. In this context, locating oneself above politics can be politically rewarding.

The Coalition has moreover generally positioned itself in ways that have invested its decisions with popular, even populist credentials. As Jim Cotton reminds us in his essay, the Government’s change of heart in its dealings with Indonesia over East Timor was in part a response to rising public and elite opinion as well as a turnabout within the Australian Labor Party. In effect, Australia’s virtual laissez faire towards Indonesia had to end. The Government portrayed the INTERFET mission and what followed as a proud Australian public achievement—with special thanks to the men and women of the ADF and the vastly popular General Peter Cosgrove.

No Government can hope to please all the people all the time. Some time it helps to have the right domestic critics, if they can be pictured as muddled and out of touch with genuine Australian interests. Australia’s performance on its environmental responsibilities under the Kyoto protocols was disparaged by critics for its insensitivity, but praised by others for adroit diplomacy. Lorraine Elliott avers that here the Government ‘took its domestic political metaphor to the international stage: the little Aussie, standing up to the ‘majors’ (particularly the European Union`) to protect, it claimed, Australian jobs and the economic future of Australian citizens and investors.’ Australia’s formal detachment from the protocols is however losing its economic tenability, requiring political rescripting.

A fitting close to this review essay is to underscore that foreign policy is a devilishly difficult enterprise. Damage control is as frequent as scoring wins. Tying foreign policy to domestic politics, while natural (‘in the last resort all foreign policy is local’) can run steep risks, for policy outcomes themselves as well as the bounties of the electoral market place.

The Government is inclined to the American version of why Iraq is a menace and must disarm, by force if necessary. For this, and alliance comity reasons (the Americans are decidedly counting on Australia), we may well find ourselves fighting against Iraq. But if, as mentioned above, the United States has rewarded Australia’s steadfastness with promised free trade agreement negotiations, the alliance connection has already brought Australian wheat sales to Iraq under Baghdad’s political leverage. More bad news can be expected, especially if war in the region generates worldwide economic shocks. Australian opinion is deeply divided on a military venture in Iraq. This is not the Gulf War of 1991, East Timor, or Afghanistan. If there is to be conflict with Iraq, and unfavourable-case scenarios are the ones that emerge, rallying the public behind the Government will be an uphill battle. Partisan rupture, public rancour, cannot be welcomed by any political side. Moreover, under such conditions the American alliance will have lost valuable capital. Contributors to the next volume of Australia in world affairs will have a trove of material to explore, but in the meantime the country may not have been the richer.

Henry S. Albinski is Visiting Professor in the Discipline of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

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