What would an independent Australian foreign policy look like?

Only in a small number of countries is the idea of an independent foreign policy considered to be a radical approach to international relations. Australia is one of them.

Credit – Unsplash

There are influential voices within the country, such as the United States lobby, which strive to maintain an alliance-based approach and prevent the development of independent external relations. Their presupposition is that Australia is incapable of self-defence, unable to thwart almost any military threats – always unspecified – whether they be real or imaginary.

If alliance boosters were less influential, what would a more independent Australian foreign policy look like? The primary challenge is how to deal with the United States.

Australia should manage the relationship with the US in a way that avoids involvement in Washington’s never-ending wars around the world, and consequent complicity in its crimes: Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq to name only three. The alliance is not an insurance policy requiring premiums to be paid in wars which are of no relevance to Australia. Most of Washington’s friends both in Europe (eg Germany) and in its own hemisphere (eg Canada), maintain good relations without offering regular blood sacrifices. However in Washington, Australia’s support is largely taken for granted and doesn’t need to be earned or bought. In return we get to share over-hyped and often mistaken intelligence (Five Eyes) and access to baroque military technologies (F-35).

The personification of ‘anomalous’ US behaviour by Bush the Second or Trump obscures the continuities of US foreign policy and tries to insulate the alliance from White House incumbents that are unpopular in Australia: they are, nevertheless, inseparable. Trump is extreme in many ways but, if anything, is more restrained than his promiscuously interventionist predecessors such as Obama, who killed tens of thousands of people by drone attacks in at least eight different countries. Meanwhile, most of the Deep State’s foreign priorities (maintaining control of NATO, interfering in Afghanistan and Syria, confronting Russia and China, etc,) continue without interruption.

The focus on Trump’s repellent personality and administrative incompetence should blind no-one to the fact that he is a product of the same political system that may elect Joe Biden in November. Blaming the 45th president for America’s misbehaviour is ahistorical and only absolves his predecessors of the damage the United States has inflicted around the world. In foreign policy, Biden is cut from a familiar mould.

What is called the liberal rules-based world order is little more than US national interests masquerading as altruism. Canberra often forgets that the most powerful member of ANZUS will always put its national interests first and Trump is just more honest about doing so.

His attacks on the International Criminal Court (ICC), recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocation of the US embassy there, his withdrawal from the JCPOA with Iran, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Paris environmental agreement and the INF Treaty with Russia illustrate his contempt for anything approaching a rules-based order. But Trump is not unique. The US has long ignored International Court of Justice (ICJ) rulings against its state terrorism in Nicaragua under Reagan and the illegal separation of the Chagos Islands from Mauritius – including the depopulation of Diego Garcia – as well as Washington’s support for Israel’s illegal colonisation of Palestine since 1967.

Why Australia seeks to be “joined at the hip” (Malcolm Turnbull) to this is difficult to understand, though it betrays a deep sense of insecurity to become dependent on such a reckless ally. It only tarnishes Australia’s image around the world, especially in the Middle East, East Asia and Southeast Asia.

Australia’s folly has been either to support America’s violations of international law – proposing to move the Australian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, denying that Palestinians have the right to self-determination, opposing the return of displaced Diego Garcians – or remain silent in support of the US and its other allies as they breech international law. Canberra’s inability to criticise Washington’s catastrophic climate change policies and unilateral abandonment of arms control and disarmament agreements are the most concerning examples of its ‘diplomatic discretion’. This is despite the fact that as a middle power, Australia has a disproportionate dependence on the norms and conventions of international society which Washington is currently trashing.

A more independent foreign policy would allow Australia to support the UN system more fulsomely, especially the ICC and ICJ, and take a more principled stand towards the high crimes and misdemeanours of the West. Canberra could publicly oppose US and UK military support for Saudi Arabia’s appalling crimes in Yemen, take a less obsequious approach to Israel by defending the rights of Palestinians, and for consistency argue that if economic sanctions are to be maintained against Russia for its annexation of Crimea, the same should also apply to Turkey for its illegal occupation of northern Cyprus, to Morocco for its incorporation of Western Sahara and, of course, Israel for its settler colonialism in the West Bank and illegal blockade of Gaza.

It might also ask Indonesia to terminate six decades of state terrorism in West Papua, oppose Washington’s efforts to overthrow the government of Venezuela, and warn New Delhi that attacks on Muslims in Kashmir and the state sponsored crimes of Hindu nationalists across India have not gone unnoticed. The rules either apply to all or no-one.

If Australia was less closely aligned to the United States it might persuade Iran to release academic Kylie Moore Gilbert from gaol, although Canberra seems uninterested in the repatriation of Julian Assange to Australia, who is currently imprisoned for journalism awaiting extradition to our great and powerful friend.

China’s behaviour is typical of a rising great power which no longer accepts the regional hegemony of the US. Australia should ditch the Cold War nostalgia of jejune ideologues in Parliament and the media who have only just noticed the Chinese Communist Party, and revert to exploring the mutual benefits of co-existence. This doesn’t require silence about Beijing’s repression of the Uighur in Xinjiang, political crackdowns in Hong Kong or remaining mute about new naval constructions in the South China Sea: there is nothing new about Chinese repression. But it does mean avoiding self-inflicted trade wounds with our most important export market, when no political or commercial gains are achieved: in fact, quite the opposite.

Australia must distance itself from Trump’s re-election strategy of shifting blame for his inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic to China, as he corrupts world trade markets with protectionist measures against steel and aluminium imports. Being a willing trojan horse for Trump’s ‘blame China’ strategy, including attacks on the WHO and unilateral calls for an investigation of COVID-19 origins in Wuhan, achieves nothing apart from the loss of barley, meat and wine exports to China, as well as tertiary students to our under-funded universities: nor will any of this help relations with Washington if Biden is elected in November. It’s an own goal for Australia and a high price to pay for misplaced fidelity to Washington.

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Dr Scott Burchill is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University. He is the author of The National Interest in International Relations Theory (Palgrave Macmillan 2005), Misunderstanding International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan 2020) and co-author and editor of Theories of International Relations (5th ed Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He has also taught at Monash University, the University of Melbourne and the University of Tasmania.

He is a regular commentator on ABC Radio and TV.

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