A transformational foreign policy

Dec 15, 2016

Some of Australia’s most experienced former foreign policy and defence bureaucrats have issued an open submission to the Foreign Minister calling on her to rethink the Australian-US alliance now that president-elect Donald Trump is set to lead the US.

This is the text of an interview by Eleanor Hall with Paul Barratt, former Secretary, Department of Defence,  on ABC The World Today, on Monday 12 December, 2016. 

ELEANOR HALL: Some of Australia’s most experienced former foreign policy and defence bureaucrats have issued an open submission to the Foreign Minister calling on her to rethink the Australian-US alliance now that president-elect Donald Trump is set to lead the US.

They say that Australian decision makers face urgent choices and they’ve put their request a day before Julie Bishop begins the first public consultations on a new foreign policy white paper.

Their submission has been sent to the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and other MPs and senators from all parties.

One of the signatories is former secretary of the Defence Department, Paul Barratt.

Paul Barratt, welcome to The World Today.

PAUL BARRATT: Good morning, Eleanor.

ELEANOR HALL: Now, you and several other former senior defence and foreign policy bureaucrats have put a submission to the Foreign Minister asking here to reconsider Australia’s alliance with the US once Donald Trump assumes the presidency.

It’s a pretty radical suggestion. What do you want her to change?

PAUL BARRATT: I want her to have a close look at the alliance and what it does for us.

The ANZUS Treaty is only an obligation to consult, and in Australian politics for decades it has been regarded by both parties as a treaty which really obliges us to follow the US every step of the way.

We want Julie Bishop to take a step back and say what do we want out of ANZUS and how do we manage it so that we get there.

ELEANOR HALL: Where do you see a president Donald Trump posing particular challenges for Australia?

PAUL BARRATT: He… He’s a person of zero experience and he’s a person who seems to have a very short attention span and a rather disturbing lack of curiosity.

So you see his reaction to the daily intelligence briefings: ‘I’m a smart person, why do I need these?’

So he will take important steps without even realising that they are major steps, and we need to know where our interests lie so that we measure ourselves against where we think he’s going.

ELEANOR HALL: So you think that linking Australia to the US under a Trump presidency poses dangers for us?

PAUL BARRATT: Certainly. The bottom line for us is we need to know what we’re prepared to sign up to.

And we need to do a major analytical effort on Trump and the people he’s appointing.

We need to try to figure out where we think the US will head in practice.

So we’re really calling for a review of the whole practice of Australian foreign policy.

And we’re also calling for a re-focus away from following the US into various misadventures in the Middle East and to concentrate our effort on the Pacific basin where our major interests lie.

ELEANOR HALL: The response from the Turnbull Government immediately to the election of Mr Trump was in fact to emphasis business as usual and the closeness of the relationship, so it would be a dramatic change to call into question all that, wouldn’t it?

PAUL BARRATT: To suggest that the advent of Donald Trump is business as usual is just really a very complacent response.

He is a very unusual person in US politics. A lot of people in the US are concerned about him.

I’m not saying that it’s a time to rush screaming from the room and tearing our hair. I’m just saying we need to take account of the nature of the person that’s been elected as the president of the United States.

We need to work with him, but we need to make sure we are pursuing Australia’s national interest and not slavishly, as we have in the past, assuming that whatever the US chooses to do will automatically be in the interests of the whole of the Western world.

ELEANOR HALL: As you’re only too well aware as a former defence secretary, it has been a long term assumption of the defence establishment that Australia’s security is best served in the region by ensuring that the US maintains its interest in the Asia Pacific.

Are you suggesting that should change?

PAUL BARRATT: I’m not suggesting that should change. I’m saying we need to think very hard how we secure that and a part of that will be how we encourage the US to do things that are in our best interests.

And I think that’s going to require quite a strenuous diplomatic effort.

ELEANOR HALL: And you also say that the Australian Government should continue its policy of not aggravating China in the South China Sea, but what if the US and China are involved in military conflict during the Trump administration? How should we choose sides then?

PAUL BARRATT: All of our efforts should go into making sure that that doesn’t happen.

And I doubt that it will happen. I think on both sides there will be wiser counsel will prevail.

But we’ve got to make sure that the US doesn’t inadvertently get itself into the point where you’ve got clashes which don’t lead to war but which really result in a breakdown of the US-China relationship.

ELEANOR HALL: Isn’t the best way to maintain our influence in the US to continue with a strong alliance and indeed continuing to support the US where it asks for our support in places like the Middle East?

PAUL BARRATT: I don’t think you- I don’t think you in any sort of political situation have influence on people by supporting them no matter what.

I think the best way to influence the US is to be acknowledged by them as a close and reliable ally, but an ally that can’t be taken for granted, that we won’t be with them if we consider their moves are ill judged.

ELEANOR HALL: The Foreign Minister is holding her first public consultation on the new foreign policy white paper tomorrow.

How has she responded to your submission?

PAUL BARRATT: I haven’t heard back yet.

ELEANOR HALL: You’re a former head of the Department of Defence. Do you expect to have some sort of response from her?

PAUL BARRATT: Well, to judge by the Turnbull Government’s general track record, I don’t think this is a government that welcomes unsolicited advice.

ELEANOR HALL: So do you have confidence that this Government can guide us through a potentially difficult era under the Trump presidency?

PAUL BARRATT: Yes, I do, but I think it needs to, it needs not to be complacent.

It needs really to sharpen up all its critical faculties and listen to its advisers and really do a thorough stocktake of where we think the US is going and where we want to go.

We really need to head in the direction of a transformational foreign policy where instead of just reacting to international events we say what kind of world would we like to see develop and what, how can we bend all efforts of Australian diplomacy to take us in that direction.

ELEANOR HALL: Paul Barratt, thanks so much for joining us.

PAUL BARRATT: Thanks Eleanor.

ELEANOR HALL: That’s Paul Barratt, former Secretary of Defence and one of the signatories on that letter to the Foreign Minister.

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