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Global pressures expose the limits of Australian foreign policy

The Abbott government’s instinct on foreign policy is to approach it through the lens of domestic politics. AAP/Lukas Coch

Global pressures expose the limits of Australian foreign policy

Much was made of the Abbott government’s seeming reluctance to join a growing international effort to address the Syrian refugee crisis. But, on Wednesday, it announced a one-off, permanent intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees and A$44 million in extra funding for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

This decision is a welcome one in response to a humanitarian catastrophe. But Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s initial reluctance and his apparent response to party and public pressure suggest it was a grudging change of heart. It is also piecemeal in the context of the millions displaced by the conflict and in comparison to the burden other countries are facing.

The pressure the government faced over the Syrian refugee crisis also hints at a broader trend. That is, global political dynamics are exposing a credibility deficit in Australian foreign policy.

Refugees and human rights

On refugees, Australia’s immediate response to the Syrian crisis stood in stark contrast to the generosity of other countries. As a host of European and even South American nations moved to welcome those displaced by war, Abbott initially ruled out any change to Australia’s small humanitarian intake.

This was a particularly bad look for the government. While Australia was willing to join others on the battlefield in the region, it appeared unwilling to act to protect victims of violence. Wednesday’s announcement goes some way to addressing the damage.

Even before this episode, however, international pressure had been mounting on the government’s asylum seeker policy. Continued revelations of suffering and abuse in detention centres led to the UN accusing Australia of violating the torture convention. The UNHCR has also consistently criticised Australia’s asylum seeker policy, especially the practice of offshore detention.

In response, the government has moved to hide conditions in detention centres from public view. Its Border Force Act allows the prosecution and imprisonment of those who speak out on abuse in offshore detention centres.

Internationally, Australia’s deterrence-based approach to refugees may have won admirers among the global far-right. But a recent New York Times editorial launched a scathing attack on Australian asylum policy, describing it as “inhumane” and “unconscionable”. In particular, it argued that other Western governments should resist the lure of a ruthlessly efficient refugee policy in favour of one oriented towards human rights.

Aid and climate

Pressures are mounting too on foreign aid. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s recent move to engage the private sector as aid “partners” seems designed to draw attention away from unprecedented aid budget cuts.

These cuts have particularly hit funding for international agencies. The Syrian crisis exposed the massive global underfunding of agencies like the UNHCR, as countries like Australia scale back their contributions.

On climate, domestic and international criticism of Australia’s weak targets for the UN climate talks in Paris in December was immediate.

Australia’s target, of a 26-28% reduction in emissions on 2005 levels by 2030, is well below fellow developed nations’ norms on almost any measure. Domestic polling points to a growing concern that the government is not taking this issue seriously. While pressure is evident now, it will surely mount as the climate talks loom.

Foreign policy as domestic politics?

Abbott’s instinct in foreign policy is to approach it through the lens of domestic politics.

Climate action is viewed as a challenge for jobs and electricity prices; refugees are a threat to sovereignty and Australian values; aid is money that could be spent at home rather than on needy foreigners.

If changing public opinion on climate change and masses of Australians taking to the streets to protest Australian refugee policy is anything to go by, this may be dangerous enough for the government. But with the ongoing erosion of Australia’s international stocks – and transnational pressures mounting – Australia’s international credibility problem could get a whole lot bigger.

Foreign policy in a globalised world

One striking feature of the latest crisis in Syria is the connection between the above dimensions of policy. Many reports are noting climate change’s role in the conflict and even in the rise of Islamic State.

In turn, effective management of refugee flows created by the Syrian conflict requires a commitment to funding international aid programs and an internationally focused refugee policy.

In these senses, Australian foreign policy has not been fit for purpose.

In a globalised world, countries cannot insulate themselves from global politics.

Even on the government’s own terms – a commitment to national security and the national interest – its foreign policy comes up short. National security requires international co-operation in response to increasingly transnational problems.

Until the government understands this reality, its foreign policy will not genuinely serve Australia’s long-term interests. And Australia will certainly not be seen as a credible international player.