The Turnbull Government’s white paper on Australian foreign policy has raised as many questions as it has provided answers. Much comment has focused on its failure to resolve, or even point to a resolution of, the tension between Australia’s unwavering adherence to US hegemony and the undeniable rise of China as a global and regional power.
The white paper reflects what has become a characteristic thinking habit in the past few years. Neither Abbott nor Turnbull, nor Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, could be described as timid or reluctant to engage in assertive, even bellicose, rhetoric. The position they find comfortable both in domestic politics and in foreign policy is one of hard realism and vocal expression of political combativeness.
And yet just below the surface there seems to lie a remarkable timidity of ideas, a striking absence of ambition. They recognise the seriousness and complexity of the issues we face, they understand that the world has changed irrevocably and will keep changing, but shrink from anything that looks like imaginative thinking or an attempt to catch up with the curve.
In some ways they seem to be prisoners of their own cherished realism. Their realism might be too much of a good thing. In opposition, Abbott condemned Rudd’s ambitious globalism and activism and promised a sharper focus on a narrower conception of national interest, concentrating on the immediate region – “more Jakarta and less Geneva”.
On winning government they delivered on the narrowness, but not on the regionalism, radically slashing Australian aid, pulling Australia back sharply from climate commitments and seeking to strengthen the US alliance above all. Less Geneva for sure, but no more Jakarta, and mainly more Washington. Plus a massive splurge towards militarisation, committing $150 billion to new weapons over the next decade, above and beyond the regular defence budget.
All of this in the name of realism. Early on Julie Bishop expressed her philosophy as preferring to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. If this is the Bishop doctrine, it has the virtue of being incontestable as far as it goes. The question is how far it goes.
Quite obviously, Australia has no choice but to work with the world as it is. But this does not mean that Australia has to accept that nothing can change, or that it is beyond Australia’s power to influence events or shape our international environment.
There have been times when Australian politicians and diplomats found tremendous potential and energy from the opportunities for influence that arose from our strategic position and weight, and the room to move that arose from being a middle power in global terms and something more than that in regional terms, especially in the Pacific.
This has never meant abandoning or contradicting alliance commitments but it has required independence of thought and action, and the conceptual ability to understand issues that sit outside, or at least at an angle to, the paradigm of alliance politics and great power rivalries.
Hence Australia, under Labor governments, supported Indonesian independence in the 1940s and did much of the work to broker the Cambodia peace settlement of the 1990s. And Coalition governments also took initiatives that showed independence and imagination. In the 1950s Menzies not only embraced the Colombo Plan but also entered into the bold trade agreement with Japan, laying foundations for the future prosperity. We supported Indonesia’s dramatic economic reconstruction from the late 1960s and later contributed greatly to global trade liberalisation through the Cairns Group, among other forums.
The point about all these historical initiatives is that they entirely supported Australia’s interests, but they did so through reshaping the environment in which we operate, which proved to be also highly beneficial to the peace and prosperity of the wider region and world.
But action requires resources, and it requires some long-term thinking, as well as broader and more joined-up thinking. Not only does it need to connect the present to the future, but it also needs to see that the security and prosperity we seek through foreign policy is completely interwoven with the regional and global environment.
The white paper’s slight regard for aid is quite perplexing. Australian aid is not only by far the biggest component of our foreign affairs budget, it is also the major element in our regional relationships, especially in the Pacific. And in both its development and humanitarian aspects it attends precisely to many of the issues identified as critical challenges – such as state fragility and conflict, displacement, climate change and urbanisation.
The white paper identifies the need to improve the capacity of Australia’s diplomats but does not recognise the centrality of development and humanitarian knowledge as part of this capacity, even though the 2014 restructure of DFAT integrated the aid program fully with the diplomatic structure, and placed heads of mission in a key influential role.
There are some welcome signs not just in the white paper but in some of the government’s recent actions, such as a stronger commitment to humanitarian assistance and a change of key, if not quite of tune, on climate change.
But in total I find it disappointing that the tone and detail of the White Paper is not more ambitious and that it does not take us very far in reimagining the positive ways that Australia can help build a regional and global environment that enhances peace and security, and prosperity and sustainability for all of us.
It’s time to think differently, rather than thinking that the world as it is all that it can ever be.
Tim Costello is Chief Advocate, World Vision Australia.