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Australian foreign policy needs a broader conception of our national interest

Australia’s current public-policy space is too small to grapple with the huge geopolitical and environmental shifts underway. EPA/Mast Irham

Australian foreign policy needs a broader conception of our national interest

In a world of growing uncertainty – exemplified by the UK’s Brexit vote, the possibility of a Trump presidency in the US, the recent decision on China’s activities in the South China Sea, and a near-coup in Turkey – Australia needs a clear bipartisan vision of its role in the world and a strategic agenda for the long-term national interest.

Australia, like every nation, must define its interests in a realistic way, in line with its core values, domestic priorities and financial resources. Australia’s national interest lies first and foremost in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as in key relationships with bilateral allies.

However, Australia’s current public-policy space is too small to grapple with the huge geopolitical and environmental shifts underway. Australia’s conception of its national interest is too narrow and too exclusively focused on the Asia-Pacific region – and, even there, too focused on a short-term agenda.

In the days leading up to the Brexit referendum, journalist Greg Sheridan advocated that Britain’s potential departure from the European Union might provide scraps off the table for Australia in the form of a new bilateral trade agreement.

Rather than asking what such an outcome could pose for Britain, for the EU, and for the entire post-war international order, this short-sighted view of the world seems to typify the knee-jerk “what’s-in-it-for-us” attitude so prevalent in how Australia sees its place in the world today.

A longer view

Trying to broaden the debate around how we define our national interest is often considered to be idealistic, unrealistic, sentimental even. But why is a broader debate not to be dismissed? Because relationships matter.

Engaging with institutions and in diplomatic processes is not an end in itself. The relationships built will pay off – not always immediately, but often in a crisis, when needed most.

Things were not always as they are today. What happened to the Australian national interest as defined by “Doc” Evatt, who played a leading role in founding the United Nations and was one of the drafters of both the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

What happened to the Keating government’s principled but pragmatic strategy for foreign engagement? This balanced the need to engage the region and to participate beyond it, including through multilateral fora.

Paul Keating and his foreign minister, Gareth Evans, knew that for a middle-size country we would fare better by investing in a fair, rule-based system of norms and international engagement. They also believed:

The humanitarian instinct to do something to help, which Australians invariably show when confronted by famine or war, will always give us an interest in alleviating the cause of suffering wherever we see it.

How do we measure ourselves against this history when we look at our inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, illegal under treaties we have ratified? Or at how we are spending less on international aid than ever before, while the rest of the OECD is increasing theirs at this time of unprecedented humanitarian need?

And what can be said of Australia’s watering down of its international climate-change commitments?

From the outside, Australia’s successive changes of governments and leadership coups have made it difficult for partners and allies to identify a consistent position on many issues. This is why a bipartisan engagement strategy would benefit us.

We can look as close as New Zealand or as far away as the Nordic countries to see how other small- and medium-size countries conceive of their national interest in a broader way, and do a better job of linking their purported values to their international positions.

Building better relationships

There was some scepticism at the UN about Australia’s 2013-14 bid for a Security Council seat. This was partly because the effort didn’t fit with any apparent longer-term strategy of multilateral engagement.

Much as Kevin Rudd’s almost-candidacy to be secretary-general is perceived as his own personal initiative and not a considered strategy of the government, the Security Council bid was too.

This scepticism goes both ways. At the annual Australian and New Zealand Society of International Law conference in June, there was debate over the utility of Australia’s council seat.

However, the relationships Australia built and what it contributed were clearly valuable. As one Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officer who served on the UN Security Council noted at the conference:

The opportunity to demonstrate that you can make a serious contribution to the maintenance of international peace and security on the most powerful body in the UN system is an unparalleled one. We hadn’t had that opportunity for 26 years. Given the activities that we were engaged in, such as combat operations in Iraq and Syria, and our contributions in a number of other fields (MH17 resolution), absolutely it was worth it.

The benefit it has given us in terms of understanding how that system works and how we might make contributions in terms of our regional security and also globally and how, if we ever, as was the case in the 1990s and earlier, needed to have a UN deployment in our region, we would understand now how that works and how we could contribute to, or even lead it, as we did in Timor.

Should Australia ever need that system of multilateral support – for example, in the context of climate change – it would be better-placed to get it if stronger knowledge and relationships were in place.

The real question now is: how do we build on the Security Council experience and the relationships it engendered to ensure the investment supports a bipartisan, long-term foreign policy strategy?

The relationships Australia built on the Security Council and what it contributed were clearly valuable. EPA/Jason Szenes

Learning to listen

The current gaps between government and parliamentary policy processes, academia and international peace and security practitioners are too wide. The think-tank space is too small. There’s little room for thinking outside the box or learning from other nations.

There are Australians engaged in international processes and representing Australia, officially or informally, all over the world and in all kinds of roles. In that sense, it is better represented and connected than many other countries.

Australian contributions, bilateral and multilateral, are consistently well-thought-through and well-received. Take, for example, the Australian Federal Police involvement in capacity-building of national police forces, such as in Cyprus, or the Australian Electoral Commission’s contributions to internationally supported national elections. Such contributions are good examples of how we can engage.

We need to open up the debate about how we define Australia’s national interest. We need to re-establish an Australia that is both open to learning from others, and feels a responsibility to share our own strengths and what we have learned.

We need a policy outlook that can bring together different aspects of our international engagement – diplomacy, development, humanitarian aid, trade, peace and security – in a coherent way, and to our best advantage.

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