Menu Close

Global perspective

Foreign policy white paper should reflect the uncertainty of our times

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has recalled all Australian diplomats to review Australia’s foreign policy settings next month. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Like a kid’s party where everyone gets a prize, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has summoned 113 of Australia’s heads of mission home for consultations as part of efforts to develop a foreign policy that matches the times.

Ambassadors, high commissioners and consuls-general from the country’s disparate outposts will gather in Canberra next month as part of a white paper process to review Australia’s foreign policy settings.

Leaving aside the expense of bringing representatives home from the four corners of the world, publicity surrounding such an exercise has heightened anticipation of a foreign policy white paper that seemed to be meandering to a predictable conclusion.

Australia would emphasise the primacy of its security relationship with the United States and the importance of its economic partnership with China. We would remain faithful to our historical and cultural ties while acknowledging our economic interests.

One would not have needed to fly more than 100 diplomats back to Canberra – at a cost of more than a million dollars – to reach this conclusion. But the arrival of a new president whose worldview is untethered from foreign policy norms has given policymakers pause, and so it should.

A Donald Trump presidency – like Halley’s Comet – is trailing across the hemispheres showering sparks in all directions, demanding attention from those responsible for setting the parameters of Australia’s interactions with the rest of the world.

In any case, such an exercise is overdue.

If Hillary Clinton had prevailed, business would have continued more or less as usual. A Clinton White House might have been more hawkish, but broadly we would have had a continuation of the Barack Obama foreign policy, including the US pivot to Asia.

Now, we have a significant level of uncertainty in our cornerstone security alliance against a background of a world in disarray. Whatever else might be said about the current situation, we are not talking about business as usual.

While the grown-ups around Trump in Defence Secretary James Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might steer American policy into more conventional waters, this will not be a conventional presidency.

Governments around the world will need to exercise their own self-interested risk management in the face of the challenges posed by an unpredictable Trump administration.

If we have learned anything from America’s various marches of folly over the years – up to and including the invasion of Iraq – it is that mistakes in the White House multiply.

In a recent post on the East Asia Forum Allan Gyngell, former head of the Office of National Assessments, now a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University, put the dilemma for Australian policymakers quite well. He wrote:

Trump is only the latest manifestation of the broad global change, nationalistic and de-globalising, confronting Australian policymakers. No-one now working in Canberra has had to contend with systemic uncertainty on this scale. You have to go back to the early 1960’s, when Australia realised that Britain could no longer sustain its strategic position east of Suez or provide the same market for its products, to find a similar shift. The drafters of the Australian foreign policy white paper and their policy bosses have their work cut out. The post-war global era is over.

This judgement may prove to be premature, but there is no question that Australian policymakers find themselves facing an unusually complex set of challenges.

The age of certainty in foreign policy is over.

In considering this latest foreign policy white paper, history is important.

This will be the third white paper in two decades during which China has taken enormous leaps forward in its economic development and security ambitions.

Back in 1997, then Prime Minister John Howard and his Foreign Minister Alexander Downer produced a white paper – In the National Interest – in which they argued the two most important influences on Australia’s foreign and trade policies would be globalisation and the continued central economic role of Asia.

This proved to be correct.

But in their second foreign policy white paper, produced in 2003, Howard and Downer did not follow the script laid down six years earlier by identifying Asia, or the Asia-Pacific, as Australia’s first priority in foreign policy.

Instead, they sought a different formula that emphasised Australia’s unique intersection of history, geography and culture between Europe and its fellow Anglosphere countries, especially America, on one hand, and its region on the other.

In its framing of Australian foreign policy priorities, the Howard government had thrown out the first draft prepared by its advisers who had more or less adhered to the 1997 formula.

Howard and Downer put their thumbs on the scale to bring about an outcome that matched their own wedge-politics preferences at a time when Labor was conflicted about Canberra’s security relationship with George W Bush’s America in the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.

Now, Malcolm Turnbull and Bishop have an opportunity to reassert broad themes present in the 1997 document, which leave no doubt that Australia’s future lies firmly in the Asia-Pacific – or the Indo-Pacific, as it’s increasingly being described in deference to India’s rise – and in the continued development of Asian institutions, including the Asian Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

This initiative, involving the 10 Southeast Asian members of ASEAN, plus China, Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, offers perhaps the region’s most prospective economic grouping now that efforts to bring to fruition the Trans Pacific Partnership have fallen down.

The RCEP has the singular virtue, by comparison with the TPP, of China’s participation. Australia needs to take the lead in these sorts of forums, as it did in the formation of APEC.

Building on a defence white paper of last year, which emphasised the need for Australia to project its maritime capabilities, similarly the 2017 foreign policy white paper should adopt a forward-leaning approach to the country’s regional engagement.

The US alliance will remain the cornerstone of Australian security, but regional partnerships will become more important and exploitable - sentimental ties aside.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 184,200 academics and researchers from 4,969 institutions.

Register now