Foreign policy needs priority and balance

May 25, 2022
Flag of the Australian Labour party
Our history and geography can pull us in different directions. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1972 film, The Candidate, Robert Redford played a United States Senate hopeful, who, having unexpectedly won, turned to his political strategist and asked, “Marvin, what do we do now?”

Anthony Albanese is better prepared for the prize than was Robert Redford’s character, but on Australian external policy, the question would be fair. The media and the blogosphere have not lacked Marvins suggesting how Australia’s post-election external policy should be conducted, most of which have been sensible.

But rather than try to handle a list of must do’s, the new government should develop two crucial mindsets; the must do’s would then follow naturally.

The first is to grasp at a gut level that external policy is now as important to Australia as domestic policy.

There is no real dispute that we are living in a different era from the post-war years in which we came of age as an independent country.

The rise of China – aspects of which are contrary to our interests – dominates our strategic landscape.

Despite the welcome decency and order of the Biden administration, the future of the American polity has become clouded.

The post war international mechanisms that provided some measures of global harmony are mangled.

Most recently, the Russo-Ukraine war has sucked up American and European strategic energy and has raised once again the spectre of nuclear war.

The idea of putting external policy – which usually does not win votes – on par with domestic imperatives will be hard for a government to digest. But it must do so. The term “existential threat” has now passed from the realm of hyperbole to possible reality.

The second essential mindset is an understanding of the importance of balance in external policy.

National interests – at least for great and middle powers – are usually best furthered and protected by a judicious mix of deterrence, which falls principally to defence establishments, and engagement, which is mainly the responsibility of foreign policy systems, and advanced through sound diplomacy.

If the mix of deterrence and engagement lacks balance, there is a danger that external policy as whole will fall out of kilter.

Equally, balance is crucial when deciding where and when we need to engage. Our failure to accord priority to the South Pacific over the past three decades has cost us dear. And our history and geography can pull us in different directions.

We must get the balance right between being essentially a western democracy and the principles and linkages with which we have thus been endowed and the imperatives deriving from where we live.

The Five Eyes intelligence forum – the United States, the United Kingdom and the three mostly white former British dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand – has recently been used as a platform for policy pronouncements on Asia. If this was meant to influence a region where colonisation is a recent experience, what a silly idea!

The Morrison Government understood the importance of external policy, even if mainly in terms of the benefits of deterring and “standing up” to China. Still, the positives of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, AUKUS and increases in defence spending outweigh the negatives.

Morrison’s problem lay in his failure to grasp the importance of balance. While accepting that some of Australia’s actions on China were justified, his government’s near obsession with China cost some of our economic sectors dearly and were seen by some of our neighbours as provocation without benefit.

It is also arguable that Australia has been so focussed on countering China that it has not put enough heft into engagement with the countries of Southeast Asia and has been insufficiently mindful of their perspectives. This was an omission given this region’s prominence as an area of contestation between the West and China and that its policies will have a direct bearing on our own future wellbeing.

This view of Australian policy may have gained currency in Jakarta at least over the issue of inviting Russia’s Vladimir Putin to the G20 leaders’ summit in Bali in November. Morrison said flatly that he opposed the invitation.

Indonesian President Widodo sees the G20 as important to the country’s economic recovery from COVID. Moreover Indonesia, India and some other G20 members do not have the same views on Russia and the Ukraine as Morrison and NATO leaders. A compromise will probably be reached whereby both Ukraine and Russia are invited. But the point is that NATO countries had bigger dogs than Australia in this fight. A balanced approach would have been to lie low – possibly then working with Japan towards some solution

In seeking to inculcate the importance of external policy within the mindset of his government, Prime Minister Albanese  has the advantage that ANZUS policy aside, Labor’s outlook has historically been more internationalist than that of the Coalition, and that the Hawke-Keating-Evans era was the heyday of Australia’s push into Asia. Labor’s test will be to lift its head above the domestic ramparts given the multitude of post-COVID economic challenges it faces and to avoid the temptation to pay only lip service to areas that do not rate highly among voter priorities. In short, it will be a matter of political will.

The development of the second mindset of balance will require discipline. It is easier to explain deterrence than foreign engagement. It is easier to castigate Putin than to entertain less clear cut Southeast Asian issues. It is always easy to strut the stage with a Biden or Johnson than a group of leaders whose names are largely unknown. The best example of foreign policy balance is Japan – which is the United States’ most important ally, has taken tough line on Ukraine, and yet remains ASEAN’s most respected partner.

In commenting largely on the differences between NATO’s perspectives on the Ukraine and those held in most of Asia, two prominent regional spokespeople recently delivered not new, but important, insights on Asian diplomacy. On 4 April, former Indian Foreign Secretary, Shivshankar Menon, noted in a Foreign Affairs article that “the dynamic of multiple affiliations and partnerships is the norm in Asia”. On 6 May, former Singapore Ambassador to the United Nations and the United States, Chan Hang Chee told Nikkei Asia that the Southeast Asians will “pick their issues and they want the independence do that”.

Simple messages perhaps, but worth heeding.

Republished with permission from the Australian Financial Review.

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