TONY KEVIN. Australian foreign policy – Riding two horses.

Aug 9, 2018

Australian foreign policy at present seems to be trying to ride two horses at once: an inherently dangerous pursuit, requiring the skills of a trained and superbly fit circus acrobat. Are we really up to this, or should we be pursuing safer courses, with our feet more firmly planted on the ground?   

One horse is the US President: well described recently by Scott Burchill:  

‘Too many commentators see Trump as an ideologue and seek to fit his foreign policy into some pre-existing conceptual framework. This will lead nowhere. His policies are strategically incoherent and are motivated by insatiable avarice and populist support for his ego. … This flexibility confounds his critics, academics and journalists alike, but it gives him unprecedented space to tear up the scripts that are written for him by the foreign policy establishment who thought he could be controlled    Australia is now willingly attached to an incoherent, unpredictable global leader who owes us nothing and whose only constant in eighteen months has been criticism of America’s traditional allies.’

The second horse is that same US foreign policy or rather national security establishment: whose policy divergences from Trump were sharply on display recently when five national security agency heads (Coats, Wray, Nielsen, Nakasone, Bolton) gave a dramatic joint media conference together at the White House  

warning that the US is still under attack from a ‘pervasive campaign’ of election meddling by Russia. 

This meeting was clearly only reluctantly approved by the absent Trump, whose default position remains scepticism whether Russian election meddling exists, or presents any real dangers to the US. He cannot have welcomed this show of defiance by his rebellious satraps, as seen by the sulky demeanour of his utterly loyal media spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in opening the briefing.

In the two sides’ major recent test of strength – assessment of and policy follow-through to the Helsinki Summit – the establishment has so far pretty much squashed any systemic follow-up to what Trump and Putin thought they had agreed:  on renewed  arms control talks, East Ukraine conflict resolution , and regularisation of Crimea issue. 

On the peace process in Southern Syria and Golan Heights, real progress continues to be made but perhaps only because Israel’s Netanyahu had already ticked off on the game plan agreed by Russia, Turkey, Iran and Damascus.  All US parties know that the US’s regime change gambit has failed in Syria: it is all over bar the shouting,  as seen in the White Helmets’ humiliating withdrawal.   Australia has rightly ceased military operations in Syria – we hope. 

Trump is off on another frolic now, bullying Iran. As usual, he is sending inconsistent signals. Iran    secure in its understandings with Russia, China and the EU  – will see out this latest challenge to its sovereignty.   

As regular readers of ‘Pearls and Irritations’ know, Australia’s problems with US foreign policy long predate the erratic Trump. Australia has loyally followed the US into one after another military intervention or invasion unauthorised by UNSC resolution:  in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. None of this has made Australia any safer: it has brought terrorism closer to our shores.

The prevailing foreign policy playbook in Canberra is influenced more by domestic hardliners like homeland security ministers Peter Dutton and Christian Porter, and national security heads Duncan Lewis of PM and C and Michael Pezzullo of Home Affairs, than by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop or Defence Minister Marise Payne.  The playbook is blind to any positive vision of multipolarity. Simplistically and crudely, it sees China and Russia as national security threats rather than as responsible contributors to a genuine UN rules-based international order: though Bishop and Payne scored a minor success last week in securing a major Chinese Navy participation in forthcoming war games near Darwin: a brave invitation which cannot have gone down well with either side in Washington, or with some in Canberra.  

The Australian national security establishment’s default position is still to cling tightly to the US alliance, whatever this may now mean: to flatter and appease the volatile Trump, while discreetly conveying unspoken messages to the anti-Trump Washington consensus that Australia is really on their side, and that like them we are just waiting to see out the worst of the Trumpstorm, meanwhile seeking to help them contain its worst manifestations. Julie Bishop’s recent words before the Helsinki Summit can be seen in this light, when she warned Trump not to give any ground to Putin on Ukraine, Crimea or MH17.  And the Labor Party stays silent, for fear of being wedged.                  

An important footnote here: despite the ongoing elite drama of Russiagate, Trump seems more and more likely to win the 2020 US presidential election.  His base is holding firm, and he is steering adeptly through the shoals of the Mueller inquiry. We probably face six more years of Trump. 


Riding these two foreign policy horses will continue to be uncomfortable and quite unproductive for Australia. Meanwhile, precious regional foreign policy opportunities like One Belt One Road are being wasted. China is being needlessly alienated in the South Pacific, when we could be working together in OBOR-related joint infrastructure activities. 

ASEAN looks on in bemusement as Australia seems to pursue  an outmoded Cold War-style containment strategy against China. The ill-conceived ‘Quad’ (US, Japan, India, Australia) is going nowhere.  In the South China Sea, our Navy flirts nervously with danger as our major ally pursues needlessly provocative naval exercises, at times straying deliberately into China’s claimed 12-mile territorial sea zones around its disputed island-  or reef-based territories.

Meanwhile, ASEAN pursues with its customary finesse its policy of courteous balance between the great Asian-region powers China, Japan, India, US and Russia. Only days ago, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov took part in a Russia-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ dialogue in Singapore. 

Australia needs to start thinking about what we could learn from how ASEAN conducts its foreign policy. Were we listening when the ASEAN Foreign Ministers assembled with us in Sydney in March, or were we in our preferred transmit-only mode?  In its complacent little bubble, the Canberra national security establishment cannot see how it is missing or mishandling important national security challenges and opportunities for Australia.

Scott Burchill rightly suggests that it is time for Australia to consider an early hip joint replacement from our friend across the Pacific: allies do not need to be joined at the hip. 

As was recently suggested by Professor Anthony Milner in The Strategist: 

‘As to the …  emphasis on developing greater (Australian) defence engagement in Asia, it has promise—but it’s a complex task, and one that must be enmeshed with broader political and economic diplomacy’.

We need to seek inspiration from ASEAN. We need to move towards a national security policy that places more weight on a thoughtful and respectful Australian regional political and economic diplomacy, and is less reliant on sending out signals of Australia’s self-proclaimed military toughness in close partnership with our great and powerful friend across the Pacific.  With or without Trump, this is not a game Australia is likely to win as the US regroups and re-prioritises , and as regional military and economic balances move away from former US-based Western dominance. 

If our foreign policy does not get smarter, it could finish up quite lonely down here underneath ASEAN.   


Tony Kevin, a former Australian senior diplomat, is an independent non-fiction author. His most recent book is Return to Moscow, a literary travel memoir published by UWA Publishing in 2017.

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