When asked what he thought was most likely to blow government plans and policies off course, former British prime minister Harold Macmillan famously replied: “events, dear boy, events”. Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a similar point, albeit in more prosaic style: “shit happens”.
Tony Abbot could be forgiven for thinking something similar. No one could have foreseen that a full-blown crisis with “our most important” neighbour would erupt within weeks of taking office, especially after all the positive talk about more Jakarta and less Geneva. Unfortunately, the best of foreign policy intentions are always hostage to fortune.
In the short-term there is probably little the Abbott government can do other than to keep its collective head down and wait for it to blow over. The Obama administration’s strategy of an outright apology and a pledge to mend its ways — in Germany’s case at least — may be tricky for Australia, but surely some form of words can be found to soothe Indonesia’s dented national pride.
There are good reasons to think that the present spat will be manageable, despite the growing clamour in Indonesia. Sheer geography dictates that both countries have powerful incentives to make the relationship work. The immediate challenge will be to come up with a narrative that manages to mollify the Indonesians while remaining locked into an intelligence gathering architecture that neither of the major parties in Australia seems willing to relinquish — whatever its political costs.
In the longer-term, however, there are strategies that can be put in place to ensure current events come to be seen as more of a tiff and less of a rupture. Indeed, it is plain that the relationship already has important strengths that should help both sides find a way through what has rapidly become a major crisis and an early, entirely unexpected test of the Abbott government’s diplomatic skills.
The fact that so many senior figures in and around the Indonesian government have been educated and/or spent long periods of time in Australia may ultimately prove to be a decisive advantage. This is where the sorts of personal connections, knowledge and understanding emphasised by the education sector and routinely invoked by politicians actually pays off. It also points to the way forward as far as the long-term stability of the relationship is concerned; it is one in which academia can play a useful part.
My colleague Jeffrey Wilson has detailed some of the conclusions of the recently-released “Murdoch Commission” report elsewhere in The Conversation. The significance of the report at this moment is that it offers a model for the sort of innovative role universities, federal and state governments, as well as business can play in deepening the engagement process and making problems of the current sort both less likely and consequential.
Among the many useful recommendations made by the Commission one of the most important is about the need to intensify connections to the region. While this may have become something of a motherhood statement, perhaps, its potential importance in the current crisis could hardly be clearer. Interconnection and interdependence change the calculus of foreign policy and help top determine what leaders consider to be realistic and feasible options.
At an elite inter-government level there is little doubt that bilateral ties between Indonesia and Australia really have changed for the better and this augurs well for the resolution of the current crisis. The great challenge is to make such positive engagement more pervasive, positive, and widely appreciated, especially in Indonesia where national pride is easily bruised.
This is where the recommendations of bodies such as the Murdoch Commission are potentially so important. True, the Commission’s focus is primarily on Western Australia, but feeling aggrieved with Canberra is a popular pastime in the West, too, so there are potential lessons to be learnt.
One of the most important features of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia that the Commission highlights is the remarkably under-developed nature of economic ties. The government and the public sector may continue to bang the drum of greater engagement, but the private sector has been slow to capitalise on the opportunities that the region generally and Indonesia in particular offer. Outward investment from Australia remains limited in extent and range - despite its potential importance in transforming relationships in the long-term. Bilateral trade with Indonesia is a piffling 2.3% of Australia’s total trade.
Australia’s relationship with Indonesia undoubtedly needs attention. But once the current hullabaloo subsides, as it surely will, the main game still needs to be deepening and diversifying the ties that bind the countries together. People-to-people ties are important in Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia, but so, too, is a greater economic presence.
“Events” will always happen. The long-term goal of foreign policy has to be ensuring that there is sufficient ballast in the relationship to allow it to navigate the occasionally choppy waters of international diplomacy. The development of deeply embedded, multi-dimensional bilateral ties has to be central to the long game.