MACK WILLIAMS. 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper : An urgent case for genuine change management !

The White Paper provides a long overdue but commendable assessment of the extensive challenges and opportunities for Australian foreign policy. It should have formed the basis for considered parliamentary debate. Unfortunately, while acknowledging for the first time the extent and pace of change, it offers few new or fresh ideas on how it should be managed and is preoccupied with maintaining what it can of the status quo.

The 2017  White Paper provides a comprehensive assessment of the challenges for Australian foreign policy into the future. But it is indicative that it has taken 14 years since a government has produced such a paper – during which time there have been major policy decisions and budgetary commitments  in Defence which logically should have drawn on an updated Foreign Policy White Paper. That this White Paper has been issued by the Prime Minister also underlines its whole-of- government importance. What a pity that it was not announced in Parliament and followed by the formerly long tradition of regular debate based on thoughtful policy statements by government and opposition rather than through all too often media conferences, doorstops or leaks. This would contribute significantly to a much better informed Parliament and public.

While the White Paper is a commendably extensive inventory of challenges and opportunities it is deficient in details of policy recommendations.  Its acknowledgement of the extent of change is to be welcomed. But it lacks a coherent vision of what Australia needs to do to manage the change.

The extraordinary change in our strategic environment is far from a new phenomenon though in keeping with the global scene its pace has certainly picked up. The White Paper repeatedly characterises the post WW11 history in the region as being stable thanks to the US presence but fails to understand that the countervailing picture has been one of enormous decolonisation and growing independence – with the last vestiges being those of the US in the Philippines up until the closure of the US bases. Our own perceptions of South East Asia  have not adequately appreciated  these changes. With few exceptions, gone are the days when aid was a major feature of our bilateral relations – with the intellectual baggage that role carried. Today they are of a more complex character and generally  our clout in them is less – take Indonesia for example , as the White Paper correctly asserts. The rate of change can only be expected to be exponential and we should be devoting far more resources to enmeshing ourselves into that particular region.  The inappropriately named New Colombo Plan is but a small part of that effort.

The main theme running through the White Paper is that of how to balance “change” and “stability”. It is extraordinary that the White Paper appears to have not drawn on the huge volume of books, research papers and the like which recognise that this dilemma is fundamental across the spectrum of the modern world from management to education to medicine and so on. What much of this informs us is that the two words are inherently contradictory and that if defensively you place too much emphasis on “stability” or “sameness” you will not be able to maximise the benefits of the opportunities offered by “change”. It is here that the heavy hand of the “ defence/security” interests lobby is most obvious in the White Paper – often to a point almost of holding on to some Cold War concepts. The professional advice to approach this dilemma is to go on the front foot through sensitive “change management” which takes account of a variety of legitimate interests rather than being diverted into a defensive posture of protecting the status quo ante. In the end the the degree and pace of change requires new and fresh policy initiatives with commensurate resources to pursue them – especially for DFAT which has been successively emasculated in recent years in terms of resources and influence.

The use of the term “Indo-Pacific” also merits some comment. The Foreign Minister  has long argued logically for the term but it involves more than just a name change. As always (in APEC for example) geography is not always without its issues. There can be few doubts about the need to elevate India in the scale of our priorities but  the focus map used on the cover page of the White Paper ends on the Indo-Pakistani border. Is this meant to indicate that our interest somehow will taper off there – still one of the world’s most volatile areas? Or is it because it conveniently equates to the reach of the US Pacific Command (PACOM) ? And if Pakistan were to be included how could Afghanistan be excluded; the almost insoluble  Rohingya crisis then becomes elevated to a high priority for us. More importantly , with all the chatter about the quadrilateral “arrangements” with Japan, US and India does this mean that we will be forced to take positions on the extensive territorial claims between India and China?

To use one of its own phrases,  the “fault line” in the White Paper on the US is instructive :

“Our alliance with the United States is central to Australia’s approach to the Indo–Pacific. Without strong US political, economic and security engagement, power is likely to shift more quickly in the region and it will be more difficult for Australia to achieve the levels of security and stability we seek. To support our objectives in the region, the Government will broaden and deepen our alliance cooperation, including through the United States Force Posture Initiatives.”


there is not much Australia can do to cope with the changes so we must make  deeper commitments to the US – especially in the US Force Posture Initiatives – to get them to stop the rot for us !

That statement in a major government document like the White Paper is nothing short of a damning assessment for Australian Foreign Policy. And all the more when the Pandora’s Box it opens (not detailed ) is understood. The Force Posture Initiatives is a long running saga well back into the Obama presidency stemming from  the Pentagon which, among other initiatives, sought to :

  • initiate revolving US Marine training in the NT expanding over time to regular US Marine Task Forces (including ships and aircraft) visits to  Darwin (port now leased to a Chinese company)
  • obtain more active visits and transits by US heavy bombers and combat aircraft in NT
  • use Cocos Island as a base for US drone operations into the Middle East
  • homeport a US nuclear aircraft carrier in WA.

This list probably includes by now the proposal by some senior US military of the establishment of a Joint Expeditionary Force with Marines and the ADF presumably based in Northern Australia. The Government has diverted or diluted some of the above but is under increasing US pressure  for dragging its feet on funding for the major infrastructure needed for the Marine rotations and the airfield strengthening. So what actually is the government, under pressure from the defence/security interest groups , contemplating Australia must do in this area to ensure that the US remains in the region to “ensure the levels of security and stability we seek”. At what cost will these be to our image in the region and not only in China – echoes of Deputy Sheriff?  And if , as widely tipped, we end up with the PACOM Commander as Ambassador in Canberra as a sort of Viceroy !

Mack Williams was Ambassador in the Philippines (1989-94) and later to the Republic of Korea







Mack Williams former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.

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5 Responses to MACK WILLIAMS. 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper : An urgent case for genuine change management !

  1. David Maxwell Gray says:

    Great piece, Mack Williams!

    The sobering lines: “To support our objectives in the region, the Government will broaden and deepen our alliance cooperation, including through the United States Force Posture Initiatives. should be debated at least in Parliament, but preferably widely in the community. Australia’s apparent blind allegiance to the US, particularly militarily, is based on wild and too-hopeful assumptions of mutual loyalty.

    We need to develop strategies, at least contingent strategies, on the alternative assumption that the US will drop Australia like a “hot scone” when it suits the particular administration. The idea that their commitment to us is so strong as to survive the staggering array of their own interests and issues – many of which are focussed on parts of the world not really germane to Australia’s trade, military or even increasingly, cultural, interests – is risible.

    By such strategies, I mean both diplomatic and military strategies, which should embody this more independent stance. In its absence we are avoiding a proper readjustment, in Australia’s interests, to the reality of the ever-increasing power and influence of China.

    The White Paper clearly documents this emergence of China, but then leads on to repeat banal responses which read like empty, vacuous political slogans.

  2. David Maxwell Gray says:

    Fantastic piece,Mack Williams!

    The sobering lines: “To support our objectives in the region, the Government will broaden and deepen our alliance cooperation, including through the United States Force Posture Initiatives.” should really be discussed both widely in the community and in Parliament. These decisions, made without public policy formation, lead Australia away from the balance of interests with our near neighbours and a reasonable degree of neutrality in an increasingly complex Asia, to a degree of US-oriented partisanship, particularly on a military dimension, which may not be in Australia’s interests. This should at least be contested publicly. Will this further military enmeshment really add to stability and security?

    The White Paper contains, at my first reading, a number of strident assertions without proper supporting arguments, particularly concerning the South China Sea. With the continuing shift of power in favour of China, there will come a time when Australia should in its own interests recognise more overtly China’s legitimate interests and domains of influence. Just where the line should be drawn is a matter of proper debate and will evolve.

  3. Phil Henry says:

    Great analysis as might be expected from seasoned, practitioner contributors to this site. Regrettably, this generally poor level of policy development, hamstrung as it is by sectoral gamesmanship and reactionary politics, is endemic across the board as the public service has been reduced to acting as contract managers.

  4. John Thompson says:

    If ever John Menadue wanted confirmation that what he is doing with Pearls and Irritations was worth his very considerable effort, today’s foreign policy pieces by Carr, Patience and Williams provide an answer. They are very good responses to a quite inadequate White Paper.
    While our increasingly dysfunctional government takes time off from parliament presumably to save it from political embarrassment, we forego the critical debate by our country’s so-called leaders on such a major issue as our place in the world

  5. Lawry Herron says:

    Good piece, Mack. We have been sucked in ill-advisedly to Darwin basing and increasing embedding of Oz military in the US military: at the personal and career level, our military get status and advancement from this. To extricate from it now would be rupture-making. There is too much Russell Hill and insufficient Gareth’s Gazebo.

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