Australian Foreign Policy is dominated by fear, defence issues, the American Alliance and the search for votes in marginal electorates. We talk about the importance of Asia but instinctively cleave to Europe and North America who are said to share our values but don’t always do so. We need to look beyond the next election and question some of our basic assumptions like whether the American Alliance gets us into more trouble than it gets us out of. We should also not get involved in peripheral issues which may serve American interests but have nothing to do with Australia. The world is changing and we must look to the future instead of focusing on the past. We need an integrated and independent foreign policy which takes a hard headed view of Australian interests and which keeps in mind the old but true saying that countries don’t have friends, only interests.
Three major difficulties.
Thee are three major areas of difficulty at the moment. The first is the low level of political debate amongst our politicians especially in foreign policy and our inability to think beyond the next election. The second is that far too much foreign policy is driven by narrowly focused domestic politics where ministerial and media time is frittered away on peripheral issues at the expense of what really matters. The third is that foreign policy is dominated by relations with the USA and this alliance is dominated by defence issues which for the most part serve American interests first. We should take a more independent, even neutral, stance in our international relations. This should not be seen as anti-Americanism but as paying them the compliment of doing what they do – putting our own interests first.
Subservience to the US.
Australian foreign policy is subservient to the USA and the implications of this have not been thoroughly thought through. A major problem for any political party wanting to make basic changes is that we Australians are terrified of standing on our own two feet; we need a sugar daddy. We have a long history of being afraid of the outside world and lacking confidence in our ability to handle it. We should pursue a foreign policy that will give us dignity instead of being seen as the monkey to the US organ grinder. We need to understand our neighbours better and avoid mindless public comments that may resonate with the shock jocks in Australia but are counter-productive overseas. If we want to maintain some kind of alliance with the US it should be much looser and we should stand up for ourselves. We should not get involved in things that are not in our interests. The invasion of Iraq, the current imbroglio in the Middle East and Afghanistan are not serving Australian interests. All they have done is make us a target for terrorists. We are not part of Europe or North America. We talk about an Asia first policy but we don’t practice it. We compare ourselves with Europe or North America both in government and the media. Our major intelligence sharing arrangements are with four white English speaking countries. We are locked into a defence alliance with the USA which is not just about defence but which dominates our approach to the world. We say we don’t want to take sides between China and the US but the US doesn’t see it that way and we are locked into arrangements. That said, joining the Chinese led AIIB is a step in the right direction because, aside from economic issues, it is putting Australian interests ahead of US interests and pressure on us not to join.
What not to do.
Our concern over Ukraine and Russia is a typical example of what not to do. Ukraine is a European problem. NATO was created to contain the Soviet Union and seems to put Russia in the same boat. Australia is not in the North Atlantic. We mindlessly join the US which wants to maintain its position as the No. 1 world power. Russia is undoubtedly meddling in Ukraine but the US has a long history of doing the same thing in its region and even beyond. Neither country can claim the international moral high ground. We would be well advised to stay out of a complex and sensitive subject rather than engaging in hairy chested histrionics to please conservative Americans and look good domestically to unthinking Australians.
For a country that faces no identifiable external threat we give far too much attention to military matters. We have made ourselves a target for terrorists by our identification with the West in general and the USA in particular. The threat has been increased by our participation in ill-fated exercises in the Middle East and Afghanistan which did not further Australian interests. It is probably too late to change our image but we should at least try by pulling out of these commitments and avoiding nonsensical public claims that our military participation in the Middle East somehow protects us from terrorism. The problem with this of course is that our participation in these activities is tied up with our integration into the US military both in policy terms and increasingly in personnel and materiel. We even had an American general telling us recently, in effect, that we should get closer to Indonesia because this would serve American defence interests in the region. He did have the courtesy to suggest it might also serve ours since we were part of the grand alliance.
What threats exist? Whose ships are our submarines going to sink? Why do we need to be a strong military power? Who is going to invade us? The only foreseeable way in which we could get involved in military activity in our region is as part of a US operation. In other words, the American alliance is more likely to drag us into trouble than to get us out of it.
The world is in a state of flux with old certainties no longer certain. This is particularly true of our region. It is too early to get worked up about the decline of the West but while the fall may be a long way off I think a future Gibbon will write that the American Empire has begun its decline. Because things are changing, we should not get locked into positions that we may find it hard to get out of. Flexibility must be our watchword. None of this should be read as an attack on the USA or an argument that we should become anti-American. Although some might argue that the squeaky wheel gets the most oil, it is in our interests to maintain good relations with the USA but not to be dominated.
We have begun to adapt in some ways. Joining the Chinese AIIB despite US lobbying against it was a positive step. We have established important relations with China and Japan although it is hard to maintain a fine balance between these two countries. We do, however, have a tendency to lecture other countries in the region on how they should run things internally. This is not well received. While we should not apologise for our views on government and human rights we must avoid sliding into arrogant missionary activity.
We have had some successes with trade policy but Australia faces an uncertain future which most Australians don’t understand. Promotion of our trade interests should be a focus of our foreign policy and this is mixed up with domestic politics. The world does not owe Australia a living and there is a very real danger that our standard of living will drop because we can’t compete internationally. If we do not adapt domestically we may well find that the late Lee Kuan Yew was right to warn us we could become the poor white coolies of Asia.
Our diplomatic service.
We need to strengthen our diplomatic service and pay less attention to amateur advisers whose knowledge of and interest in international relations is in inverse proportion to their devotion to reading the entrails of domestic polls and focus groups. We had perhaps the most respected and professional diplomatic network in Asia but this seems to have been eroded by budget cuts. There is no substitute for experience and professionalism.
In short, Australia needs to start from scratch and take a hard headed look at how traditional attitudes will serve our interests in the future. All aspects of our relations with the outside world form an integrated whole and we cannot decide policies on each of them in isolation. Clausewitz was right to link diplomacy and war so we cannot separate foreign policy and defence policy. Our defence policy colours the way other countries perceive us as a nation. If we want to be respected as something more than a junior partner in an alliance of countries whose location and interests are far distant from us then we need to stop relying on others. Despite the fine rhetoric, the United States has always remained fiercely independent and has always followed policies which served its own interests first – or at least which it perceived to serve its interests. We should pay the Americans the compliment of imitating them.
Cavan Hogue was Australian Ambassador to Mexico, High Commissioner to Malaysia, Ambassador to the USSR and Russia, and Ambassador to Thailand.