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Australian foreign policy needs a shake-up after two decades of sclerotic decline

Under the assertive leadership of Xi Jinping, China won’t meekly accept the terms of closer engagement with Australia being determined by the US alliance. AAP/Lukas Coch

Australian foreign policy needs a shake-up after two decades of sclerotic decline

Under the assertive leadership of Xi Jinping, China won’t meekly accept the terms of closer engagement with Australia being determined by the US alliance. AAP/Lukas Coch

Malcolm Turnbull welcomes that Australia now lives in riskier, more exciting times. This is especially true of foreign policy.

Malcolm Turnbull has stressed that Australians today live in exciting and challenging times.

The past 20 years under prime ministers Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott were years of sclerosis and decline in Australia’s once creative and agile foreign policy. More and more, Australia became dullard US camp followers, as all the really important bilateral relationships and strategic choices moved into prime ministerial orbits of power, bounded by an increasingly fearful national security orthodoxy.

All prime ministers since 1996 adopted a play-it-safe foreign policy of unquestioning strategic alignment with the US.

When asked to jump, Australia’s only question was: “How high?” Since the Afghanistan war began in 2001, Australia was always first up to volunteer forces for America’s wars of choice. Australia’s strategic assessments of flashpoints – like Syria, Ukraine and China Sea competition – were unquestioningly identical with those of the US and the UK.

Foreign Affairs and its minister were more and more left managing the bread-and-butter issues of multilateral and bilateral diplomatic processes and consular problems.

Most of the empathy towards Australia’s Asia-Pacific regional neighbours – painstakingly acquired over decades of professional diplomacy since 1945 – drained away after 1996. What was left was a self-absorbed, at times pig-headed, focus on causes of the day that seemed at the time most important to us – mainly stopping the boats since 2000 – with little regard for what might matter most to Australia’s regional neighbours. Australia earned a reputation, regionally and at the United Nations, of a self-centred, even cruel country.

Julie Bishop has displayed her ability as foreign minister in the UN Security Council. EPA/Andrew Gombert

Tony Abbott’s dead policy hand since 2013 left the talented and charismatic Julie Bishop little room to move as foreign minister. Her finest hour was when, with expert help from Australia’s UN ambassador, she delivered the UN Security Council resolution on the shooting down of MH17 that the US wanted. It showed what she could do, if given a real Australian national interest foreign policy brief.

Restore Australian independence

All this could now change sharply for the better. Turnbull has since “Spycatcher” days known how great powers cannot help condescending to and bullying smaller allies. A proud man, he will react if it happens. He will remember how Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Labor foreign ministers Bill Hayden and Gareth Evans worked to flesh out an independent Australian diplomacy of stature in the world without ever abandoning Australia’s core strategic ANZUS alliance.

The conservative mantra “trade profitably with China while securely protected by US military power” is losing credibility as the China-US rivalry becomes more explicit. China under its tough leader, Xi Jinping, is testing US hegemonic strength and willpower. China now has less tolerance for an Australia trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

And the US is not the prudent custodian of international peace it once was. Under Barack Obama, the US strategic establishment has shown it is ready to throw risky dice in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Under a Hillary Clinton presidency, America’s foreign policy stance will likely harden.

Australia’s best choice is to begin to distance itself a little from elements of the US alliance – to signal a little more questioning and aforethought. Turnbull and Bishop must give the policy lead now. DFAT, Defence and the assessment agencies have the professional expertise to support them.

DFAT should reinstate a real policy planning capability ready to test policy orthodoxies, headed by a non-line officer. It worked well under Owen Harries in the Fraser and Peacock years. It proved its worth again under Hawke and Hayden, in the Gorbachev years of perestroika, helping to prepare Australian foreign policy for multipolarity and the end of Cold War policy stasis. The challenge now is no less.

As it turned out, a multipolar world was slow in coming. In the 1990s, a unipolar world centred on a triumphant US, until al-Qaeda announced itself in 2001.

Now, real multipolarity is emerging. Australian foreign policy is unready for it.

Revive the arts of diplomacy

The foreign policy challenge for Australia goes to questions of style as well as substance: for example, to recognise that Australians are not necessarily the nicest or best-liked people in the world.

Many countries enjoy a healthy dose of cultural self-congratulation but have learnt not to flaunt it. Australia needs to rediscover subtle arts of diplomacy: manners, persuasion, listening as much as speaking, seeking out real common interests with interlocutors.

Abbott saw to it that neither the world nor the region currently loves Australia. Indonesia was unusually frank in welcoming his departure. The world will not suddenly warm to Turnbull and Bishop.

Australia starts from well behind in response to climate change and in the human rights area. It will have to demonstrate greater sensitivity and willingness to put itself in the shoes of others. In a world that is actually not a cozy Anglo-American club, Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne will be assets. Peter Dutton will be a burden.

Insulting Russia and President Vladimir Putin is counterproductive. EPA/Michael Klimentyev/Ria Novosti

Australia can cease automatically demonising and insulting Russia, a great nation with an educated, middle-income, democracy-building society. Russia – a nuclear power – has growing links with China, India, Iran and the non-aligned world. A diplomacy of good manners towards Russia, as towards China and Iran, offers rewards to Australia.

Australia also needs to be interested in Europe’s travails, which matter to the world. It needs to understand the European Union’s aspirations, the pains of harmonising economic and migration policies, of acculturating newer pugnacious members. It needs to see beyond the cultural blinkers of the white Anglosphere – it is a big complex world out there, in which multicultural democratic Australia can again play a creative role.

Advance national interest in a bipartisan way

Australian foreign policy must refresh lessons learned under Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating, but then shrugged off in the self-absorption of the past 20 years. An effective foreign policy is too important to be a playground for vainglorious prime ministers. Nor is it a vehicle for demonstrating unquestioning loyalty to the great and powerful friend of the moment. Its task is simply to identify and advance Australia’s national interest in the world, and diplomacy is its instrument.

Turnbull and Bishop know this, and in Foreign Affairs and Trade they have a good working asset, if they now dare to break Abbott’s stifling straitjacket on policy.

It is essential to strengthen bipartisanship in foreign policy. This is as much Labor’s responsibility as the Coalition’s. If foreign policy settings change in response to changing facts, the opposition should certainly ask why, but should not mindlessly carp or point-score.

A current case: there should be bipartisan recognition that Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin must be part of a negotiated Syrian peace process, if the endless haemorrhage of refugees from that war-stricken country is to end. A similar willingness to throw over old policy shibboleths is necessary now if peace is to return to Ukraine: if we want to be real, we cannot go on blaming Putin for everything.

Australia needs to talk seriously with Southeast Asian friends and neighbours – not just with the US and its like-minded ally, Japan – about Chinese asset-building on the reefs and atolls of the South China Sea. How really concerned is it about this? Does it actually see this as Chinese and American symbolic great-power muscle-flexing, really of no huge concern to it?

Finally, Australia needs to start thinking of itself as one of the growing group of serious-minded nations determined not to support any trend to a retrograde world of two alliance systems locked in implacable opposition. That way leads to the folly of Europe 1914. Turnbull and Bishop – who has the potential to become one of Australia’s best foreign ministers – will comprehend this and act on it.