It’s in Australia’s national interest to look beyond military risks in foreign policy Part 2

Oct 25, 2021
australia world map
(Image: Flickr/Marko Mikkonen)

Australian foreign policy has been preoccupied with the US and military risks, but needs to consider climate disruption and other risks to Australians’ well-being.

Effective understanding of Australia’s national interests must recognise the impinging on the fate of Australians of not just risks deriving from the international system, but also risks deriving from the workings of the system of global social relations, and from risks at a planetary level. A country’s foreign policy should be concerned with three levels of risk, as they impinge on the life and well-being of its citizens. These can be classified as international, global system, and planetary risks. Defence policy is preoccupied with international risks, and of limited or counter-productive application to global system risk or planetary risk.

Australian government preoccupation with the alliance with the United States as the core of our foreign policy and the foundation of defence policy fundamentally distorts the focus and concerns of Australian policy in ways that do not address the actual range of risks to the well-being of Australians we should be expecting our government to consider as matters of great urgency.

International risks are the bread and butter of foreign policy — the actions or attitudes or policies of other nation-states that are seen impinging on Australia’s national interests. Defence policy most clearly functions as a distinctive tool to manage to such international risks. Australian foreign and defence policy is consumed by a preoccupation with international military risks addressed by alliance-centred exclusivist multilateralism at best.

Global system risks derive from the operations of the wider set of global social relations and the effects they have on the interests of the Australian state and its people. Contemporary global risks with which Australian governments have been at least somewhat cognisant, however ineffectual the subsequent action, concerned include the operations of the global financial system, global information systems maintenance, large-scale forced migration, and pandemic management. For the most part, as the global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has shown, Australian governments find even cooperative health security approaches difficult to consider, let alone policy approaches founded on both cosmopolitan global analysis and transnational equality of moral considerations.

Other global system deficits with even more serious security implications for Australia include predatory forms of globalisation, global apartheid-like structures of inequality and uneven life chances, unrestricted economic growth and unregulated mobility of capital, regressive and predatory forms of globalization, and the absence of modes of global democracy and legitimate global systems of regulation.

These global system risks are either ignored or almost wholly ineffectually and counter-productively addressed in inappropriate frameworks of “national security”. The most obvious example for Australia is the sundering of “illegal border entry” from its global analytical context, including Australia’s historical and ongoing military and economic linkages to sources of global conflict that give rise to forced migration and stark inequality of life chances.

Most of these issues require transnational coordination and cooperation to optimize the application of national policy, and large military forces are of little effective use in the management of such risks. However Australian and other governments have on occasion thought otherwise, particularly in the case of forced migration, with often counter-productive consequences. The one global systemic issue that is now widely understood and recognized by the Australian public, if only dimly so by the current government, is climate disruption, where the human causes are widely spread, but the effects necessarily globally salient, and effective solutions necessarily transnationally coordinated within a framework of open multilateral cooperative security.

The least familiar framework of risks, planetary risks, derive from developments of the planet-wide biophysical system, including the activities of humans, that impinge significantly on the interests of the people of Australia. Most importantly, such risks often derive from biophysical challenges to equitable or even simply continuing use of the global commons. Climate disruption straddles the two categories of systemic risks deriving from global social relations and increasing evident planetary risks in so far as the consequences of climate disruption in the age of the Anthropocene are now impinging on geological systems, and may not be reversible.

This exploration of the actual range of “external” risks with which an Australian foreign policy should properly be concerned may seem a long way from the question of assessment of the Australian alliance with the United States. But that is precisely the point: the alliance obsession distorts Australian understanding of global system risks and planetary risks.

The real and urgent interests of the Australian people require high-level government engagement with all of these problems, and yet for all recent Australian governments, foreign policy is framed in extremely conceptually and strategically restrictive and counter-productive ways.

More importantly still, the sources generating all of these wider patterns of international, global system, and planetary risk will continue to develop, most likely giving rise to new and more intense forms of political conflict. Climate disruption, which at present is still early in its now virtually unavoidable known trajectory, will in a relatively short time become the driver of new forms of intense conflict, which governments like Australia will, when they can no longer ignore them, most likely address in wholly dysfunctional terms of the familiar role of a militarised alliance of the rich and powerful West vs the rest.

This part two of an edited extract of Richard Tanter’s submission to the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network People’s Inquiry in US-Australia Alliance, September 2021. Read part one here. Next: Australia’s shapeshifting alliances.

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