RICHARD BUTLER. Foreign Policy on Auto-Pilot: In Spite of the Weather

Every week now, we are presented with another reason to think hard about exactly what our “joined at the hip” relationship with the US obliges us to do. July Bishop’s Foreign Policy White paper doesn’t meet that need. Indeed, it urges us to deepen our relationship with the US as the way ahead. Our relationship of dependence on the US renders us unable to address effectively the key current and foreseeable determinants, of politics among nations.  

During the last few weeks, it was the reports that the Trump administration is planning an armed attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and that senior Australian military sources have been discussing what might be the involvement of Pine Gap in the planning and execution of such action.

Malcolm Turnbull judged it necessary to react. He described those reports, publicly, as “speculation”. As this was the best word he could choose, a word, which carefully does not address substance, it thus appears that the veracity of the reports was confirmed.

Nine months ago, following a relatively exhaustive process of discussion and invited public input, Foreign Minister Bishop issued the Foreign Policy White Paper, 2017. It is designed to cover the next 5-10 years.

As we should be able to expect, the paper was well written and researched. And as also could be expected from Bishop and the Government she represents, it embodied an indelibly conservative outlook.

They key conclusion of the White Paper was that the US Alliance was and will remain indispensible to our continuing life and security as a nation.

This rests upon the conviction that, in the end, we cannot look after ourselves by managing our relations with others who are not members of the anglosphere; that is, basically, the countries of the region in which we live. And, this repeats the enduring fiction that, in all circumstances, the US will rescue us.

This welded attachment of Australia to the US, its actions and policies, is not in fact required by the ANZUS Treaty. The Treaty requires its parties to consult, in the event of a threat. It is not comparable to the NATO Treaty, article 5 of which commits parties to act, as one, if any party is attacked.

For at least three decades, our political leaders, on all sides, have misled our people and the Parliament on both what the Treaty requires of us and above all on what it delivers to us.

Bishop’s White Paper is no exception, indeed it speaks of deepening our reliance/dependence on the US. It represents choices which rest on: a  domestic political calculation; and, a view of the world as it is today, that borders on wish fulfilment.

There are at least four features at play in current international relations. These are not novel, as such. Nor are they temporary phenomena. But their strength and scale is remarkable. Recognition of these realities should shape our foreign policy. They receive inadequate attention in the White Paper.

1. The post Second World War “rules based order”. That order is now 70 years old. Elements of it continue to guide international conduct, in important often invisible ways, but, with respect to virtually all issues in serious political contention: non-aggression; refugees/migration; territorial sovereignty; human rights; and now, trade; nowadays that order is continually violated and not enforced.

Our Government extols the importance of that order yet, itself: conforms with it only selectively; turns a blind eye to violations of it by our friends indeed in the case of the US positively supports it when the US clearly breaks the rules; and, most importantly has largely abdicated our past active diplomatic role in defending the rules and building them further.

A new global great game is afoot. It engages new players and new objectives. Our recognition of this and identification of our place in it, needs urgent and creative attention.

We need to better than, for example, to accept the assertion, popular in the US, that it is inevitable that we westerners will have to fight China.

2.    What has replaced the post world wars/cold war order, what Robert Kaplan has persuasively called “the Long War” of the 20th Century (1914-1989), has been a widespread reversion to the traditional exercise of power in the pursuit of national interests, no matter what principles of conduct in international affairs may be violated. The justification given for this is national sovereignty.

An example of this corrosive phenomenon is given by the repeated claim by the US, without any hint of blushing, that it is the “exceptional country”; meaning that it is beyond international law.

It has refused to join many UN treaties, virtually universally adhered to, and has chosen to leave treaties and agreements to which it was a party previously.

The US, of course, is not alone is exercising selectivity towards the rules based order, but through its actions, it has indeed, made itself exceptional, to an incomparable degree.

Our Government’s stance has been to increasingly accompany the US on such serious issues as the treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons and all things Israeli.

3.  Attachment to national sovereignty has increasingly morphed, during the last decade, with: populist, ethnocentric, xenophobic, political movements within a variety of countries in a number of parts of the world.

The reasons for this disturbing phenomenon include: rising inequalities within national economies; war and societal breakdown within nations, including as the result of environmental failures; massive displacement of peoples and refugee flows (the are 68.5 million refugees in the world today).

Australia’s policy towards refugees and asylum seekers, believed by our political parties to be popular, deserves mention here, not least because we are a party to an important part of the rules based order: the Conventions on refugees and asylum. We are seen to be failing in our obligations under both and, have been called to account on this by the UN.

4.   Non-military threats to human security abound in today’s world. They include: food emergencies; recurrent medical crises; widespread poverty; the suffering of women and girls, ranging from female infanticide, through violence, to trafficking, female genital mutilation, child marriage, maternal health conditions, denial of education and employment.

An important goal of the rules based order is to ensure international cooperation to address such urgent needs.

Our government has a good track record here particularly in our region and the Pacific. This is good international citizenship. It does us credit and serves our foreign policy interests.

The abiding weakness in our foreign policy and this is all too evident in the Bishop paper, is the refusal of our politicians to address directly the exposure to danger posed to us by being “joined at the hip”.

It was John Howard who initiated what has become our increasingly abject posture towards the US and it must be recognized that Labor from Kevin Rudd onwards has done nothing to slow this down. Indeed, it was Julia Gillard who agreed with Obama to the stationing of US troops in Australia.

All Australian political leaders in this period have assessed that it would be an electoral disaster to: tell the people the truth about what the ANZUS treaty actually establishes; adopt an independent foreign policy which ends the automaticity with which we take part in any war of choice initiated by the US.

This obstructs reform of our foreign policy to take account of the new political constructs outlined here and to seek cooperation with other states, particularly in our region, on defending the rules based order on the basis that we discern that it is right to have some common principles and, in our collective interest to do so.

This would take courage on the part of our leaders, including in the face of our media, not just the general public. Our media are a large part of this problem of truth, reality, in consideration of the best policy stance for Australia. There are some important exceptions, but they struggle.

Murdoch media, in particular, have displayed an almost venal interest in our membership of the white western tribe. After all it’s easier to see the world in such grossly prejudiced terms: us and the others and, it obviously serves them financially.

As a disclaimer, none of what I have argued here is in response to the phenomenon of Trump as President of the US. He has simply enlarged the challenge we face to correct the Alliance relationship and, made it more urgent that we do so; in the turbulent times, the weather, we face.

The White Paper should have set, as the major task of our future foreign policy and diplomacy, the abandonment of our current sycophancy towards the US and, its replacement with a relationship of mutual respect.

 Richard Butler AC Former Ambassador to the United Nations, New York.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Richard Butler AC Former Ambassador to the United Nations, Executive Chairman of UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq, Professor of International Affairs.

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