We need a transformational foreign policy.

Dec 9, 2016

The following submission to the Hon. Julie Bishop for the White Paper on Foreign Affairs and Trade has also been sent to the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and Senator Wong, as well as selected MPs and Senators.



The co-signatories share a strong interest in developing independent foreign, security and trade policies for Australia in this rapidly changing world. They formed the ‘Australia in the 21st Century’ (A21C) group in November 2016, bringing together long experience in government, universities, defence, medicine, and the media.

The election of Donald Trump has unsettled the global order. He will be the first US president to have no experience of governmental or military leadership. In his campaign statements he challenged the Western consensus on international issues, ranging from US alliances, national security, and nuclear weapons to trade, immigration, and climate change. In whatever ways he implements or moderates these policies, uncertainty and volatility will prevail from January 2017 onwards.

This prospect confronts Australia with urgent policy choices. In particular, the US election brings to a head the obligation to define our interests and independently determine policies to advance them. New circumstances present Australia with a challenge to which the forthcoming Foreign Affairs and Trade White Paper, announced by the Foreign Minister, can and should present a timely response. This statement is submitted as a contribution to it.


The inauguration of a new administration in Washington coincides with the slow but sure demise of the liberal international order which the United States constructed and underwrote after 1945. It represents what Senator Penny Wong has called a ‘change moment’.  Paul Keating has observed that a wise country hedges its bets, and advised Australia not to gamble ‘all its chips’ on its relationship with the US. Malcolm Fraser suggested that aspects of the alliance put Australia in danger. Greens leader Richard Di Natale has called for a fundamental reassessment of the Australia-US alliance. Their challenges to the government are realistic and rational: when the facts change, it is appropriate for all leaders to review their opinions. They should not shelter behind an assumption that the public will not tolerate change, nor warn the public against it. The views of Australian voters on these matters are no more reliably reflected in the mainstream Australian media than the American nation’s mood was gauged by commentators before the November election.

At this moment in our history Australia has a rare opportunity to identify specific responses to these changes. No certainty exists about US policy directions, and our policy determinations need not rely on those directions. A White Paper to guide our foreign, security and trade policies for the coming decade must start with an open mind. A logical principle comes from medicine: first, do no harm. Then, try to do some good.

Realism invites us to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, as the Foreign Minister has repeatedly affirmed. As she has also said, Australia is a top twenty nation, one that is not inconsequential and has the capacity to help shape regional security as well as global rules. In order to use this capacity wisely, Australia should have a vision of our preferred world, and should seek to direct existing rules and realities towards the goal where our interests and values converge. We are now challenged as we have not been since 1942 to identify the changes we prefer and implement them.

Government already makes both realistic and visionary choices. The very notion of ‘good international citizenship’ implies the application of values to decision-making. But Australia faces a dilemma between a ‘rules-based’ order on the one hand and ‘tribal’ solidarity with our Western allies on the other. The former is now a better option for Australian interests. Few analysts dispute that the US faces more challenges every year, and that America will before long have to concede to sharing strategic space with China, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. In this situation we need to ensure that choices and decisions that Australia makes are based on our own careful evaluation, and not simply on a perceived need to follow our alliance partner

The assumption that the US will indefinitely be willing and able to defend Australia is unsustainable, and this should be made clear to the Australian public. The benefits of the alliance to Australia are often invoked:  access in Washington, discounted military equipment, training, intelligence, nuclear deterrence, and military and surveillance bases. These, however, are not cost-free. The base at Pine Gap contributes to internet interception, drone strikes, and early warnings of attack, and both it and the US marine base in Darwin make Australia a potential target and a possible participant in wars not of our choosing. The US might protect these assets in a crisis, but not necessarily the rest of Australia.

Operating in a world as it actually is implies acknowledging that all great powers act and react like great powers. The United States may lose aspects of its former hegemony but it will retain most of the attributes of a great power, and in the world it will therefore act accordingly. If Russia recovers the capacities of a great power, it will return to acting like one in pursuit of its vital interests along and near its borders. Meanwhile China, already the world’s largest economy, has the status of a major power in the Indo-Pacific region and is rapidly acquiring a global footprint.

Australian governments have for years denied that there is a need to choose between China and America. But reconciling our dominant security alliance with the US with the reality of China as our largest trading partner – and that of most of our neighbours – will require careful policy consideration and skilful diplomacy. On the one hand, successive defence white papers have been wary of China’s military expansion and modernisation. On the other, Australia has opted to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which is a China-ASEAN initiative. By refraining from provocative moves in the South China Sea, in spite of our close inter-operability with the US, Australia has chosen a prudent course.

If Australia follows these tentative moves with more entrepreneurship and investment in the countries of East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia, we will gradually identify more with their interests and they with ours. A further rules-based opportunity is presented by the East Asia Summit and other ASEAN fora, whose members including Australia have all ratified the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). Incorporating key phrases from the UN Charter, the TAC commits its parties (including Australia, China, and the US) to refrain from threatening or using force against each other. At this time, it is more than ever important for Australia to reaffirm the Charter’s provision against the unilateral use of force to settle international disputes. We have a new opportunity to invoke the Charter and the TAC in the interests of peace in our region, to hold others to them, and to ensure that our own behaviour upholds them.

By pursuing and expanding multiple interactions in regional countries, we can now make up for two decades of relative neglect. The study of Asian languages, histories and cultures has declined in Australia; the skilling of ‘Asia-capable’ Australians in all fields (urgently recommended in the 2012 White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century) has not occurred; two-way trade has expanded but Australian investment in Asia has not. The ANZUS alliance will endure, committing its parties as it did in 1952 to consultation if any party is threatened in the Pacific, and such regional fora as the Shangri-la Dialogue will no doubt continue. But Australia should seek active participation in Asian regional exchanges at many levels, establishing more ‘elbow room’ and becoming smarter at accommodating diverse views. ASEAN was recognised as the portal for Australia’s Asia engagement in 1991 and, now as then, Indonesia continues to hold the key to it. Although the transfer of emphasis back to the region is overdue, we should not exaggerate alleged threats in the South China Sea, nor take sides over them. Unimpeded passage is in the interests of all states in the region, as is peaceful resolution of territorial claims and disputes over resources including fisheries. Agreement to this approach among all Australian political parties should be encouraged.

We have a short breathing space and a few months to reflect on how Australian foreign policy should change to meet the changed circumstances of 2017 and pursue our goals for security, prosperity, and values. A transformational approach to foreign policy will require a reprioritisation of bilateral relations away from the Middle East to focus on the Indo-Pacific region. It will also require a recalibration of multilateral approaches to such pressing global challenges as climate change, terrorism, nuclear threats, and the use of force to settle international disputes. In particular, as Australia did in 1972, we should at the earliest opportunity withdraw our forces from wars distant from Australia, which have unintended and perverse consequences and do not serve Australian interests. Governments should refrain from such commitments in the future.


Contact:   Alison Broinowski,


Willy Bach, MPhil, School of History, UQ, Peace Scholar and activist, former British soldier in the CIA’s Secret War in Laos

Paul Barratt AO, former Secretary, Department of Defence, President Australians for War Powers Reform

Allan Behm, author, former Chief of Staff  to Greg Combet MP

Dr Alison Broinowski, former Australian diplomat, Vice-President Australians for War Powers Reform, Vice-President Honest History

Richard Broinowski, President, Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW, former Ambassador to Vietnam, the Republic of Korea, and Mexico

Richard Butler AC, former Ambassador to the United Nations, Cambodia, Thailand, and for UN Disarmament Matters

Emeritus Professor Joseph Camilleri OAM, College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, La Trobe University

Andrew Farran, former law academic, Treasurer Australians for War Powers Reform

Anthony Kevin, former Ambassador to Poland and Cambodia, Emeritus Fellow, ANU

Ian Lincoln, Vice President, Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW, former Ambassador to Vietnam

John Menadue AO, former CEO of Qantas, former Secretary Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, former Ambassador to Japan

Geoff Miller AO, former Director ONA, former Ambassador to Japan, the Republic of Korea, and High Commissioner to New Zealand

Emeritus Professor Anthony Milner AM, FASSA

James O’Neill , Barrister at Law

John Ridley, Principal, Clifton Group Communications Strategists, Melbourne

Professor Ramesh Thakur, Director, Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament in the Crawford School, Australian National University

John Tilemann, Consultant at Counter Proliferation Consulting, former Australian diplomat

Dr Sue Wareham OAM, Secretary Australians for War Powers Reform

Professor Hugh White, Strategic Studies Centre, Australian National University

Garry Woodard, Senior Fellow, Political Science, University of Melbourne, former Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China

Richard Woolcott AC, former Secretary Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Terri-Ann White , Director, University of Western Australia Press

Pera Wells, former Secretary-General World Federation of UN Associations


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