ALLAN PATIENCE. The complacency of the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.

Nov 27, 2017

The 2017 White Paper displays, yet again, Australia’s foreign policy complacency, its misplaced middle power imagining, and its awkward partnering in its region. It is a failure as a strategic map for advancing Australia’s security and prosperity in the “Indo-Pacific” region and the world.

 The public policy miasma stupefying contemporary Australian politics is painfully evident in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. It is primarily characterized by its nostalgia for the security blanket once provided by the British Empire and subsequently by the ANZUS alliance. It fails to come to grips with three fundamental weaknesses in Australia’s foreign policy making: (i) the lack of a clear understanding of Australia’s middle power imagining; (ii) the true costs of the American alliance; and (iii) the country’s deep cultural ignorance in its dealings with China.

  • Middle powers

Australian prime ministers and foreign ministers are fond of asserting that the country is respected as a middle power in regional and global forums. They variously describe Australia as “punching above its weight” and as a “global citizen” while campaigning, for example, for temporary membership of the United Nations Security Council and the UN’s Human Rights Council. But rarely do they explain what they mean by “middle power”, or what kind of middle power they believe Australia actually is.

Middle powers are characterised as in-between states in the hierarchy of global powers. They neither loom ominously over world affairs, like great powers, nor are they irrelevantly small. They speak louder than small states while trying to influence big states – sometimes in support of a rules based global order; more often to advantage themselves amid the chaos of the contemporary international system (or non-system).

There are three ways in which states can seek recognition as middle powers.

First, there are dependent middle powers. The sole basis of their claim to middle power status is conditional on being in an entrenched alliance with a big power.

 Second there are regional middle powers – states that enter into regional groupings like the European Union that acquire new-found influence in their regions (and maybe the world) precisely because of their regional grouping membership. (Brexit will see the UK losing its regional middle power status as it becomes a lower-order dependent middle power through its necessarily beefed up security ties with the USA.)

Finally, there are states that acquire middle power recognition because of the integrity of their domestic governance systems and their global activism on issues like human rights advocacy, the abolition of nuclear weapons, women’s equality, climate change, and international efforts to address global poverty. This third group of states gains middle power respect and influence (even regional or global leadership roles) by being recognised as good global citizens. Some Scandinavian states like Norway belong to this esteemed category of middle powers. We are likely to see more of their positive activism in global politics in the future, perhaps with the development of a concert of like-minded middle powers, either alongside or within the United Nations.

Australia is a dependent middle power. All its claims to middle power significance in its region and on the world stage are based on its close alliance with the United States. All its middle power eggs are in the American security basket.

Claimed intimacy with the USA – even arrogating the title of “deputy sheriff” for the US in Southeast Asia – is all that Australia has to fall back on when posturing as a middle power. The country’s persistent recalcitrance in addressing the deprivations of Indigenous Australians, its treatment of asylum seekers, its ramshackle constitution, and its increasingly populist politics mean that it is a hollowed out democracy. It lacks governance integrity. And if the US decides to suspend its adherence to the ANZUS treaty (as it has in the past), or to dispense with it altogether, Australia will be left looking like a jilted shag on a very lonely rock in the South Pacific.

Any acknowledgement of the stifling foreign policy constraints resulting from Australia’s dependent middle power imagining is glaringly absent from the 2017 White Paper. It is therefore already obsolete because it fails to understand this fundamental deficiency at the very core of the country’s foreign policy making.

  • The costs of the American alliance

The White Paper parrots the old canard that the American alliance is of unchallengeable benefit to Australia’s security. It seeks to embolden Australia into greater activism in the “Indo-Pacific” region, specifically in order to keep the United States engaged in the region – demonstrating its willingness to do its bit in the region only to complement American security strategies. It echoes the conventional view that Australia is richly rewarded by the alliance through access to US intelligence, US military technology, and the reflected power and glory of the US in our region.

This is the most craven kind of thinking. It ignores the extremely high costs of the alliance – for example, being involved in all of America’s wars since the Pacific War. The cost in terms of blood and treasure has been appallingly high. Yet none of these wars has achieved its objectives. Korea remains a stale mate. Vietnam was a defeat. Afghanistan is a never-ending nightmare. Iraq is a total disaster. Those wars and the war in Syria have not only exacerbated the horrific violence in that sad region, but have also been a major cause of the contemporary terrorist movements, while also generating the outflows of refugees from the region.

Australia is deeply complicit in all this American-led devastation.

The most egregious justification of the US alliance is that it saves Australian taxpayers from spending what they should spend in their own defence. The naïve belief is that Uncle Sam will always point his drones, nuclear missiles and related military power at our potential enemies, to make them back off. So we save money. But this is the equivalent of governments relying on funds from the gambling industry to pad their budgets. The apparent savings are illusory. The pay-offs are all bad.

In fact the US alliance has become the major cause of Australia’s awkward partnering with its Asian neighbours. Experts refer to Australia’s “liminality” in its region – it’s “odd man out status.” We drift at the margins of our geopolitical location, neither in nor out – and frequently we invite suspicion or outright hostility by those very states whose friendship we need and on whose cooperation our security relies. We fail to understand that the alliance with America has become a millstone around the country’s neck. It’s time to rethink the alliance, comprehensively.

  • Living “in fear of China”

Years ago the former diplomat and academic Gregory Clark wrote about Australia’s culturally entrenched fear of China. The historical roots of this fear are embedded in the Gold Rush era when Chinese gold seekers were often brutally victimized by their Caucasian counterparts. It flourished throughout the long history of the White Australia policy. And it remains a crimson thread of race-hate running through the alt-right politics of entities like One Nation and Right Wing Resistance Australia. It is fashionable to deny that Australia is a racist country, but the fact is (as Adam Goodes, and many others can attest) racism remains a vividly indelible stain beliming the country’s character.

Racism is invariably the result of two related things: ignorance and xenophobia (fear of the unknown “other”). In Australia we are dismayingly ignorant of the cultures, traditions, languages and politics of the countries that are integral to our region. This is especially the case with China. Ignorance of China’s past and present is painfully evident in the many public conversations in this country about our dealings with our Chinese counterparts in trade, education and regional matters.

The lack of Asian studies curricula and understandings of cosmopolitanism in our schools and universities is endangering Australia’s security and prosperity in precisely the region in which it must be “at home” for centuries yet. The White Paper misses this point.

The White Paper should have candidly discussed the options for a truly independent foreign policy for Australia, one that frees us from an alliance system that is undermining the national interest. And it should have discussed the options for relating intelligently and sensitively to the China, not blundering on as we do now.

In 1955 Arthur Tange, then Secretary of External Affairs in Canberra, wrote in a memorandum to his minister, Richard Casey: “The support and confidence of great friends are great assets; but it is unprofitable for Australia to pay an unnecessarily high price. The present price of our American friendship is some suspicion and wariness towards Australia in Asia, with whom we have to live for a thousand years.”

It is regrettable that the authors of the 2017 White Paper so plainly lack Tange’s sagacity.


Dr Allan Patience is a foreign policy specialist in the School of Social and Political Sciences in the University of Melbourne. His book Australian Foreign Policy in Asia: Middle Power or Awkward Partner? will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in January 2018.

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